NBA

Healthy starters, cushy schedule, and the Milwaukee Bucks enter December surging

By Sports Desk December 01, 2021

The Milwaukee Bucks looked out of sorts as they limped into November having lost three in a row with two of the defending champions' top scorers sidelined.

Thirty days later at the season's quarter-mark, they are healthier and look capable of repeating as champs as they enter December riding an impressive seven-game winning streak.

A mere 91 days after winning the franchise's first NBA title since 1971, Milwaukee raised its championship banner and then emphatically beat a Brooklyn Nets team expected to contend for this season's title by 23 points. In that convincing win, the starting five of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez combined for 82 points.

That has still been the only game this season coach Mike Budenholzer has been able to use that starting five, as Holiday, Middleton and Lopez have all missed significant time.

With Lopez still sidelined since the season opener with a sore back, the Bucks signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday to provide frontcourt depth.

A four-time All-Star, Cousins isn't the same player he was in 2015 and 2016 when he earned second-team all-NBA honours, but the 31-year-old should be able to step in and provide size off the bench.

Milwaukee got Holiday back in early November after he sat out one game with a right heel contusion and another five with a sprained left ankle, but by the time he returned Middleton was already out with COVID-19.

The Bucks finished up October with a 3-4 record and were 4-6 on November 7, scoring fewer than 100 points in exactly half of their 10 games – this after failing to reach triple digits in just four regular-season games all last season.

In 11 games since then, they've only dipped below the century mark once and their current win streak has coincided with the return of Middleton from his eight-game absence.

It should be noted, though, that a 12-11 Los Angeles Lakers team playing without LeBron James is the only team the Bucks beat in their last seven games currently holding a winning record and the collective .325 winning percentage by their opponents from November 17-30 was the worst in the league for any team's opponents in that time span.

With that said, they still have thoroughly annihilated some overmatched opponents, holding leads of 20, 29, 51, 24, 20 and 22 in their last six games and now stand within a half-game of the Chicago Bulls for the Central Division lead.

Antetokounmpo posted a plus-38 plus-minus rating in Milwaukee's 123-92 beatdown of the Orlando Magic last Monday, a game in which the Bucks had a 77-36 advantage at the half for the largest half-time lead in franchise history, while Holiday had a plus-37 rating – kicking off a historic stretch for the veteran point guard.

In the last four games, Holiday has compiled a plus-117 rating – the highest for any player over a single-season four-game stretch since Stats Perform began tracking plus-minus rating in 2002-03. In that time, only two other players have registered a rating of plus-115 or better and that was Stephen Curry with a plus-115 in his 2015-16 MVP season and Mike Conley with a plus-116 last season.

Holiday is averaging 19.8 points on 55.7 per cent shooting with a 61.5 eFG percentage in the last four contests following a three-game stretch in which he averaged 9.7 points on 30.6 per cent shooting with a 36.1 eFG percentage. In the four games since November 22, he's connecting on 69.2 per cent of 39 2-point tries and has made 8-of-9 jump shots from 10-15 feet.

Holiday still hasn't found his touch from the perimeter, shooting 25.5 per cent on 51 3-point attempts in the last nine games, but that hasn't been much of a deterrent for Milwaukee as the team is getting outside help from an unlikely source.

Bobby Portis has drained 19-of-32 shots from 3-point range (59.4 per cent) in the last six games, twice going 6-for-7 from beyond the arc. This is after he made 13-of-40 3-point tries (32.5 per cent) in his first 10 contests, only making more than one 3-pointer in a game on two occasions.

Since his tear began on November 19, Portis and the Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball are the only players in the league with 100-plus points, 60-plus rebounds and 15-plus 3-pointers made – and Ball has played one more game and made the same number of 3-pointers on 19 more tries.

While Holiday and Portis have been putting up gaudy MVP-type number over the last week, the actual two-time league MVP continues to be his same outstanding self in the season's early going.

Antetokounmpo has recorded 12 double-doubles in 20 games played and has a pair of 40-point games – only Curry has more with four. He leads all players with 127 field goals made in the restricted area, but defences simply can’t converge on him because he's adept at kicking the ball out to a teammate to knock down a 3-ponter – his 73 assists on made 3s are the most in the NBA.

The trio of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court has always been a boon for Milwaukee but lately it's been utterly dominant. The Bucks averaged a stellar 113.9 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court in their first 17 games before averaging 133.0 points per 100 possessions with that threesome in the last four.

No big surprise, with all the Bucks' opening-night starters back with the exception of Lopez, the offence has found its rhythm. Since its win streak begin on November 17, Milwaukee's starters are averaging a league-leading 84.9 points. The starters averaged 77.6 points in their first 14 games.

While Milwaukee's offence is rolling, the defence has keyed the team's turnaround – setting the tone from the get-go.

During their 2020-21 championship season, the Bucks jumped out on their opponents, leading by an average of 2.6 points after one quarter – the fourth-largest margin in the league. Through the first month of this season, though, they often found themselves trailing early.

Aside from leading the Nets by 12 points after 12 minutes in the opener with the starting five intact, the Bucks only had four other leads after one quarter in the first 15 games, recording a minus-0.9 scoring differential through one period in those contests. It's been a completely different story lately, as they’ve been putting away teams early, outscoring opponents by an average of 9.8 in the first quarter in the last six games.

The offence has been slightly better in the last six – averaging 31.8 first-quarter points after averaging 29.0 in the first 15 – but the biggest improvement has been on the defensive end.

Facing their opponents' starting five, Milwaukee is holding teams to 37.4 per cet shooting – including 32.8 per cent from beyond the arc – in the first quarter in the last six games after opponents shot 50.4 per cent from the field and 44.1 per cent from 3-point range in the first quarter in the first 15.

Overall since November 17, the Bucks lead the league in opponent field goal percentage at 39.1 and only the Warriors are allowing fewer points than Milwaukee’s 99.0 per game at 98.3. This comes after the Bucks allowed an average of 109.8 points on 45.1 per cent shooting in their first 14 games.

The Bucks have yet to lose this season with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton in the lineup, and while they won't have the luxury of playing teams like the Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons every night, they will play each of those three teams again over the next four and a half weeks.

Beginning with the Hornets and running through a date with the Pistons on January 3, Milwaukee's opponents' winning percentage of .400 is the worst in the league. It's probably a lot to ask for the Bucks to continue to play at their current pace over this next stretch, but the opportunity is there for them to build a lead atop the Central come the new year.

Related items

  • Australian Open: Nadal overcomes marathon first set to beat Mannarino for quarter-final spot Australian Open: Nadal overcomes marathon first set to beat Mannarino for quarter-final spot

    Rafael Nadal overcame a marathon first-set tiebreaker to move into the Australian Open quarter-finals with a straight-sets win over French veteran Adrian Mannarino on Sunday.

    Nadal continued on his search for a record-breaking 21st grand slam title with the 7-6 (16-14) 6-2 6-2 victory at Rod Laver Arena.

    The Spaniard will take on either third seed Alexander Zverev or Canadian 14th seed Denis Shapovalov in the last eight on Tuesday. The win marks Nadal's 14th appearance in the Australian Open quarters.

    Nadal has only dropped one set in his first four matches at the Australian Open but the opening set against Mannarino was epic, with the sixth seed edging his opponent after 80 minutes.

    The 2009 Australian Open winner trailed 3-0 in the tie-break but fought back to level it up, eventually taking the set 16-14 with his seventh set point.

    Nadal assumed complete control from that set on, dominating the second and third to win in two hours and 40 minutes.

    The 35-year-old was powerful, sending down 16-7 aces, while he won 88 percent on his first serve across the match. Nadal only offered up two break points for the match.

    DATA SLAM: Nadal on the right track

    Nadal has dropped 38 games across his four matches at the Australian Open, making light work of Mannarino in the latter two sets which collectively took as long as the first.

    The Spaniard won in Melbourne in 2009 but lost finals in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, yet without Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at this year's event it looms as his best chance for years to lift the title and he seems in good health and form. 

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS

    Nadal – 42/22

    Mannarino – 37/34

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS

    Nadal – 16/6

    Mannarino 7/4

    BREAK POINTS WON

    Nadal – 5/17

    Mannarino – 1/2

  • Rodgers weighs up Packers future: 'I don't want to be part of a rebuild' Rodgers weighs up Packers future: 'I don't want to be part of a rebuild'

    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has offered a hint on his future after admitting he does not want to be part of a rebuild.

    The top-seeded Packers were eliminated from the NFL playoffs on Saturday after a 13-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, with Rodgers failing to throw a touchdown pass.

    The 38-year-old MVP contender nearly departed Green Bay last off-season and was pressed on his future following Saturday's elimination.

    Rodgers has been with the Packers for 14 seasons for one Super Bowl and is under contract for next season.

    "I don’t want to be a part of a rebuild if I’m going to keep playing so a lot of decisions in the next couple of months,” Rodgers said during the post-game press conference.

    "I‘m gonna take some time and have conversations with the folks around here, and then take some time away and make a decision - obviously before free agency.

    "It’s fresh right now. It’s a little shocking for sure… I haven’t even let the moment sink in yet."

    He added: "There's a lot of players whose futures are up in the air, so definitely will be interesting to see which way some of those decisions will go.

    "But I'll have the conversations with [Packers general manager] Brian [Gutekunst] in the next week or so and get a little bit more clarity and think about my own future and how much longer I want to keep doing this.

    “I think this thing is definitely going to look different in Green Bay moving forward."

    Rodgers conceded he would need to mull the "tough decision" but said he was still competitive and determined to play at the highest level.

    Packers head coach Aaron LeFleur put his pitch forward, insisting he wants Rodgers to stay. The veteran QB had an outstanding season, with a 68.9 percent completion rate, throwing 4115 yards for 37 touchdowns with only four interceptions.

    "Certainly, we want him back here," LaFleur told reporters about Rodgers. "We‘d be crazy to not want him back here.

    “He’s going to be the two-time MVP. This guy does so much for our football team. Not only what you guys see on Sundays or every game day, but what he does in that locker room and how he leads.

    “I know what he puts into this thing and I’m certainly extremely disappointed that we couldn’t get over the hump for not only him, but for everybody in that locker room.”

  • Bulls confirm Caruso to miss six to eight weeks after Allen flagrant 2 foul Bulls confirm Caruso to miss six to eight weeks after Allen flagrant 2 foul

    The Chicago Bulls have announced that guard Alex Caruso will miss six to eight weeks due to a wrist injury sustained in a controversial moment in Friday's 94-90 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Caruso will undergo surgery early next week for a fractured right wrist, having been fouled by Milwaukee's Grayson Allen, who was subsequently ejected.

    The former Lakers guard joins Lonzo Ball on the sidelines for the 28-16 Bulls, who have lost five of their past six games.

    Caruso's agent Greg Lawrence called Allen's foul, deemed flagrant 2 by the officials, a "cheap shot" given the significant injury it had caused. Bulls head coach Billy Donovan had labelled Allen's act as "dangerous" after the game.

    The 27-year-old guard played out the game but admitted his wrist continued to bother him, impacting his shooting.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.