The Milwaukee Bucks are learning that even this early into the season, winning a championship and defending a title are two completely different things.
It seems like months have passed since the Bucks began the 2021-2022 season with an emphatic 127-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets on ring night and raced to a 3-1 win-loss record. Headlines and highlights of Giannis Antetokounmpo having a jumpshot after a season in which he won the title with a 50-point performance certainly have only added to the talk of how unstoppable Milwaukee was poised to be.
with their 117-89 win over the Detroit Pistons snapping the losing streak and bringing them back to .500 (4-4). As of this writing, they remain in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Antetokounmpo was all over the place as he had 28 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, and four blocks in the win. He had more help this time as he had six other teammates who scored at least eight points. It was a complete reversal from their loss to the Utah Jazz, where it was surprising to see only three players go for a combined six free throw attempts. In the win over the Pistons, nine players attempted 21 free throws, pushing their attempts per game to 20.5.
Sure, five other players scored at least nine points for Milwaukee, but for an aggressive team like the Bucks, it was surprising to see only three players go for a combined six free throw attempts, especially when prior to the Jazz game, Milwaukee was third in the NBA in free throw attempts at 22.8. It also didn’t help that Utah’s 3-point shooting (12-for-37 in the game) allowed them to spread the floor and provide easier inside baskets for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
There were certainly a confluence of factors that led them to where they are right now, all of which were both within and out of their control.
Offensively, they continue to be an inside-outside team that runs through Antetokounmpo and rightly so. The two-time MVP has made strides with his jumpshot and while he won’t be a splash brother anytime soon, it does make him even more versatile than when he was adjudged FInals MVP. With Giannis at the forefront, the Bucks are ninth in the league in 2-point field goal percentage at 53.4 percent. There still is room to grow as despite being in the top 10 in 3-point attempts at 40.3 per game, they only convert on 33.5 percent of those attempts, which puts them at 18th in the NBA.
It’s the defense that has largely been lacking the teeth it had during the championship run last season and the loss of PJ Tucker to the Miami Heat has stung more in this losing streak. This is only compounded by the loss of Brook Lopez, who has missed every game after the opener due to a back injury. Despite being a plodding big man in the fast-paced NBA, his rim protection (and outside shooting) was nevertheless a deterrent.
With Tucker gone and Lopez out, Milwaukee has been relying on Giannis, his brother Thanasis, Bobby Portis, and Semi Ojeleye to be the main enforcers in the paint. Its effectiveness leaves much to be desired as prior to the win against Detroit, the Bucks allowed more points (111.9) than they scored (108.3). This stems from them allowing opponents to easily score inside (29.3 2-point field goals on 53.6 percent shooting).
Not only is it unproductive, but it may also not be sustainable in the long run considering how the extra effort Giannis has to exert on the defensive end could add to the wear-and-tear and increase the risk of injury.
As it is, injuries are already a concern this early into the season as Lopez, Portis, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton have all missed time and it has certainly disrupted their flow and preparations. Ojeleye also sat out against the Jazz as he continued to work his way back from a calf strain that had been bothering him since the preseason. The concerns with Holiday and Middleton would be more of note, considering both have been playing non-stop after having helped Team USA win the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. With both out, it allowed Jerami Grant to get some shots in early.
Moving forward, four of their next eight games see Milwaukee facing the New York Knicks (twice), the Atlanta Hawks, and the Los Angeles Lakers, three teams that are above .500, have a positive net rating, and are among the top-9 teams in the NBA in scoring. The Knicks and the Lakers may be in the bottom half of the league in terms of points allowed, but both are coached by defensive-minded coaches that have plenty of time and tape to scout the Bucks.
Eight games into an 82-game season is still a small sample size to sound the alarm for trouble, but the Bucks do have to nip these brewing issues at the bud. Doing so improves their title defense chances and any hope of building a dynasty around Giannis Antetokounmpo.