What grades do we send the Bucks home with this weekend?
In a vacuum, any Eastern Conference team is going to be satisfied with a 3-3 road trip through the West, but we don’t live in a vacuum. On the one hand, with the defeat on Thursday dropping the Bucks to 3 games behind 2-seeded Philadelphia, after a dispiriting loss on Tuesday, no one should be happy with 3-3. On the other hand, no one should be distraught with 3-3. The extenuating factors the Bucks dealt with—their MVP candidate missed multiple games and their newly-acquired defensive stopper missed all of them—makes 3-3 even sound lucky. Plus, it was a point or two away from being a 4-2 trip. Or a 2-4 trip. Overall, I’m neutral. Like Switzerland. Like a pH of 7. Like a .500 record.
Jrue Holiday: A- (last week: A)
I’ll start by expressing how thrilled I am that Holiday signed an extension. If you’re watching this team, you see how massive an upgrade he is and I’m optimistic he’ll be that player in the postseason. His effect on the team reminds me of Chris Paul’s on-court aura; some players just make their teammates better. For that, the salary and length is definitely fair. The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week wowed again in the box scores, but once that week ended we saw that he won’t make it back-to-back. I do have to give demerits for his uncharacteristic 8 turnovers in San Fran and an inefficient 13 on 16 shots in Dallas. Side note: Holiday has been victimized by phantom offensive foul calls in consecutive games. That’s two personals and two turnovers he should get back.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: A-)
He played only one game this week, but it was one of his best ever with 47 points on just 21 shots, including a perfect 18/18 inside the arc. That production in one game exceeds many players’ output over four. How much do they miss him right now? Consider this: by a smidge, Giannis is the 3rd-leading scorer in 4th quarter shooting (7.7 per)—number one if you want to count out Durant (7.9) and Embiid (7.8) due to injuries. After three consecutive fourth quarter collapses this week (thankfully they pulled out a W in Sacramento), this is glaring. Could he have saved them against Dallas?
Khris Middleton: C (last week: B+)
I don’t want to rag on Middleton too hard, but Thursday night knocked him down a whole letter grade. No matter how you slice it, 14 points on 6/27 shooting is atrocious and while shooters shoot, at a certain point anyone should stop. I think it’s reasonable to be worried about him because over the past six weeks, he’s had some very rough games, a stretch we did not see from him last year. Hard to say it’s a total coincidence that the slide began when reentered the Mavs game in the fourth. Though his games against the league’s two worst defenses on Saturday and Sunday are nice, he simply did not hold up his end of the bargain with Giannis out. I say that lately he’s slipped to the third-best player on this team.
Brook Lopez: A- (last week: B-)
Lopez is just money around the rim. His touch within 10 feet is only rivaled by that of Portis; any possession that ends with him lumbering—and somehow gracefully getting a shot up around his defender—through the paint is a good outcome for Milwaukee. As a big man with his skillset should be, he was a monster against the defensively-inept Kings, and may have been the Bucks’ best player against the Mavs too. He was more muted in the other games, but still effective and really is the only Buck capable of defending the rim at present. He’s been critical to the team since the All-Star break.
Donte DiVincenzo: B- (last week: B)
It’s typical to perceive DiVincenzo’s box score lines as not being indicative of his impact on the game. This was true against Dallas, but the opposite of what we’re used to: I think his 22 points on 6/10 shooting overstates his positive effect last night. He still made some of the same mistakes I observed against Golden State and Portland on both ends (plus a costly and boneheaded behind-the-back pass attempt). He was prone to over-helping, gambling at the wrong times, reckless passes, ill-advised shot selection, and at times appearing physically out of control—most notably against Golden State. These cons are nothing new with DDV, but lately they outweigh his pros to a higher degree than usual. Also, someone really needs to tell him not to take threes early shot clock unless they’re comfortably ahead, and especially not when they’re trailing. He just can’t hit them.
Bobby Portis: A- (last week: COVID protocols)
Though his efficiency dipped with the rest of the team’s as they collapsed in Dallas, Portis kept Milwaukee in the game early with a variety of jump hooks, floaters, and tips down low: stuff he’s mastered. His most important contributions this week may have been on the boards, though. Portis picked up Giannis’ rebounding slack with aplomb, notably in the two losses. The Bucks were out-rebounded in those contests, but it’s not hard to see how mediocrity from the team’s maybe-second-best rebounder could have hurt them earlier.
Jeff Teague: A (last week: N/A)
Talk about an instant fit. Would I be stretching it to say he fits like a glove? Unlike other deadline/buyout acquisitions in recent seasons, Teague produced almost upon arrival, likely thanks to his familiarity with Bud. Seriously, Nikola Mirotic was hurt within a few games then couldn’t shoot 3s, Marvin Williams couldn’t shoot 3s, P.J. Tucker also was hurt within a few games, and Pau Gasol… let’s just forget he was here. Teague was a good, if not great point guard for those Hawks teams (remember, one of them won 60 games) but like many of you, I thought he was washed. Maybe it was because of his role with the Celtics? Sure, asking him to fill in for Kemba Walker was beyond his capability, but Boston’s ISO-heavy offense is not well-suited to his game. Milwaukee’s seems better, so even when he’s not scoring (Tuesday night was sublime) he’s making great reads, slick passes, and finding open guys. As he becomes more familiar with his new teammates, seems like things can only improve.
Pat Connaughton: B- (last week: B)
The Great Connaughton Three Point Shooting Mean Reversion that everyone expected finally came this week, and boy did it ever: he went 0/14 from deep (30.8% from the floor) and his season three point average dipped to 37.7%. As I’ve said before, he provides enough value otherwise to still see rotation minutes when he’s ice-cold. That starts and ends with his rebounding. He averaged 8.7 per 36 minutes over the four games, which is sensational from a 6’5” wing. Many of them were visually impressive and not easy: his wingspan and vertical lets him get to balls most others can’t. I think this is probably the best application of his vaunted athleticism. He’s never been better on the glass.
Bryn Forbes: B (last week: B)
He had a dud against the Mavs, but otherwise it was business as usual from downtown for the Michigan State alum. We know he’s unlikely to contribute in any other way (0 boards and 0 assists across the two games in California) but props to him for just one turnover across 65 minutes in a week where the Bucks had a lot of turnover problems. Also props for being more selective in the midrange after going 0/4 inside the arc versus the Blazers.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B+ (last week: A)
Is Luka Doncic to Thanasis what James Harden is to Giannis? Some closeups in that matchup showed Thanasis amusedly chirping at a visibly-irritated Doncic during a dead-ball in the third: was it some (Tha)nasty trash talk? Did he get in Doncic’s head? In any case, I thought our favorite big brother guarded Doncic very well when they were matched up. Though the Mavs superstar was nailing shots all night (whaddaya gonna do), Thanasis was glued to him often and there was no getting past him on drives. He made a couple bad fouls (4 in 18 minutes ain’t great, folks) so any defense was a bit negated. You’ll also take 10 and 5 on perfect shooting against Golden State from him every time.
Jordan Nwora: B (last week: B+)
13 minutes in Sacramento is enough for Nwora to make it out of Incomplete Town, though that was the only real burn he got this week (6 additional minutes of garbage time). I admit that I didn’t even realize he had 3 steals in that one. Coming up with 3 turnovers in that short a time span is an accomplishment even for the league’s best, so have a B young fella.
Mike Budenholzer: C+ (last week: B)
Milwaukee’s performance the past three matchups has to be viewed through a Giannis-less lens. Even so, let’s acknowledge that the Bucks blew a 4th quarter lead in each one. While the Mavs pulled away on the heels of a 27-8 run in the last 8 minutes Thursday, the score belies its closeness, and the Dubs used 16-5 run to snatch a W away on Tuesday. The Kings tied it up late on Saturday as well. Tiny differences could flip each result completely. I rewatched the final minutes of the Kings and Warriors games to check out Bud’s half-court sets more closely. First off, no one can stop Steph Curry when he’s on one (whaddaya gonna do), so I can somewhat excuse the defense as the Bucks fell apart down the stretch. But the ten point lead the Bucks held inside of 4 minutes was erased by big plays from Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre too, players the Bucks should be able to lock up. On the other end, it was almost exclusively Holiday and Middleton isolation plays. It wasn’t until the game got within one possession where the Bucks began distributing. The final possession with a shot for the win was maybe the best drawn up play we saw as the game was concluding, but the players couldn’t execute.
In Sacramento, nearly every call in the last 5 minutes was an ISO too, again to Middleton or Holiday. As the Kings used a 11-1 run to tie the game from also being down ten, the Bucks wasted half-court possessions one after another on early shot clock jumpers outside the restricted area (they at least ran more clock in San Fran). It wasn’t until the final 1:30 where Holiday finally started hitting. When you have a ten point lead with the game winding down, you absolutely should be milking the clock, even if it’s an ISO. Middleton has been rough in cluth ISO possessions lately and Bud smartly went away from that. Brook Lopez, having an amazing game against the porous Kings, scarcely touched the ball in this late game situation when the Bucks were bleeding points. Milwaukee couldn’t stop Sacramento from scoring in the closing minute either. Now, poor execution on either end is almost always on the players, unlike the play calls and lineups. A win is a win, but Bud was not putting his team in position to do so on Saturday or Tuesday.
Incomplete: Axel Toupane (3 minutes), Mamadi Diakite (2 minutes), Sam Merrill (DNP), Rodions Kurucs (DNP), P.J. Tucker (hope he’s healthy real soon)
Everyone’s happy the Bucks are returning east, even if they only have one game at home tomorrow. The competition drops with a couple middling East playoff teams and two bottom-feeders, but can the Bucks head back out on the road immediately and take care of business against inferior teams? I’m just glad there are no more late nights covering games for us writers. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.