The Milwaukee Bucks are on a postseason mission

Milwaukee — DURING TIME OUT Late in the fourth quarter of a game on February 24 against the Miami Heat, Jrue Holiday picked up an orange bottle of Gatorade and channeled his inner Backstreet Boy.

Holiday went to the bench for the last time with 4:30 left and his Milwaukee Bucks were leading 124-89 en route to their 13th straight win, so it was time for Holiday to enjoy the moment.

“I don’t want to hear you talk.”

Holiday lip-synced to his bottle of Gatorade while bouncing from his seat as a sold-out crowd of 17,676 at the Fiserv Forum cheered him on during “Crowd Karaoke” playing the Bucks video board above the venue.

“Nothing but heartache.”

Milwaukee has had plenty of moments to enjoy lately, having won 21 of their last 23 games. Bucks Take on the Golden State Warriors (Saturday, 8:30 pm ET on ABC) – a meeting of the last two NBA champions – as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, 2.5 games ahead of “Boston”. Celtics for the best record in the NBA.

“Sometimes timing matters in this league,” an Eastern Conference scout told Sportzshala. “They are finally healthy and picking up the pace at the right time.”

There have been four occasions in the past five seasons where a team has won at least 15 games in a row, and the Bucks are responsible for two of them. Before the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Bucks 133-130 last week, Milwaukee had won 16 games in a row, the third-longest streak in franchise history.

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is close to becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to average 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists on 50% shooting. Center Brook Lopez is a top contender for Defensive Player of the Year, as is Holiday, who made his first All-Star team since the 2012-13 season and is having his best season with the Bucks. Chris Middleton has finally recovered and is assuming his recent role as a sixth man, leading a reserve squad that has become one of the strongest in the league, especially since the deadline date acquisition of Jay Crowder.

After losing seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last season, the Bucks have returned their entire rotation to prepare for another championship shot. Now with one month left in the regular season, the Bucks’ offense is picking up steam, their defense remains dominant, and they’ve built a deeper rotation than they did last year, hoping to reclaim the title they won in 2021 but couldn’t. defend last season.

“When you win and stay together, they just know how to win,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said ahead of a game in Milwaukee last week. “You can see it in their game. They can bring in other people and buy the same chemistry and culture because they did it and all their key guys were there in the promised land.

“Every team that hasn’t won or been in the final, there are moments when you can get to them; you won’t get to the Bucks. You just won’t get there. There is nothing you can do to shock them. .”

WHEN DOLLARS played well at the start of the season, they used a dominant defense that had been at or near the top of the league since the start of the year. Milwaukee’s attack, however, was incomplete. The Bucks have been in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency for most of the year and are currently ranked 17th in points per 100 possessions.

But just before they hit 16 straight wins — the longest winning streak of any team in the NBA this season — the Bucks made a small change to their game plan. Purpose: to play with tempo.

The Bucks play faster, not because they create more transition opportunities, but because they want to get into their sets much faster in the half court. Antetokounmpo said the team had become too methodical in how it wanted to break down the defense at the start of the season, looking for inconsistencies and moving the ball around halfway instead of playing in the offensive flow.

During their winning streak, the Bucks played at the fastest pace in the NBA, with an average possession time of 14.7 seconds in half-court sets, the fastest in the league according to Second Spectrum and 1.2 seconds faster than their average possession before the series. , ranked 18th in the NBA. The Bucks hit within the first 12 seconds of the shot clock in 58% of half-court sets, the most in the NBA in that period.

In 20 games since Jan. 23 (the day Middleton returned to start their 16-game winning streak), the Bucks have averaged 123.9 points, the most in the NBA.

“At the end of the day, we are at our best when we play fast,” Antetokounmpo said after winning last week.

While their offense improved, the Bucks didn’t have to sacrifice anything on defense. Milwaukee ranks third in the league in defensive performance all season and has been the leader in that category since Jan. 23.

So while Antetokounmpo noted the team’s offensive progress in recent weeks, he made sure to reiterate that defense is still the backbone of this team.

“The year we won and when we were at our best is when we defend,” Antetokounmpo said. “This league is so talented that you can’t trade baskets… We have to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. And I think it will help us to be in better shape. we’re going to score a ball. We need to know that our protection will be there and we can rely on it at all times.”

AT THE FINAL On the day of the 2021-22 regular season, the Bucks decided to take a break.

After taking the top three, the Bucks defeated Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Lopez, and Bobby Portis in the regular season finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Holiday began receiving a contract bonus but only played eight seconds before missing the remainder of the game. Milwaukee used just six other players—mostly underused reservists like Sandro Mamukelashvili and Raijon Tucker—in a 133–115 loss to the Cavs.

The Bucks finished 3rd in the East, helping them avoid a first-round series against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, who took Milwaukee to seven games during the previous conference semifinals and kept them within Durant. finger to go home early.

But the decision to essentially give the Celtics the second seed haunted the Bucks. Boston had home court advantage in the team’s second round series, meaning Game 7 was played at TD Garden, where the Celtics went on to a landslide victory, 109–81. The Bucks are regretting how the regular season ended, team sources told Sportzshala, and while finishing this season healthy will be their priority, the Bucks want to make the playoffs as the top seed and force the East through. through Milwaukee.

The Bucks have what it takes to reach that goal, even as some of their best players are missing games. Antetokounmpo left in the first quarter with an injury in two straight games and missed another after the All-Star break – the Bucks won all three games. On Tuesday night, Milwaukee missed both of their 2023 All-Star Games at Antetokounmpo and Holiday and still won a 134-122 victory over Orlando thanks to 50 points scored by Lopez and Middleton.

“Depth really helps us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There are a lot of good players there, we can move in different directions, the squad is versatile.”

Milwaukee was able to trade Crowder without giving up any of the top nine players in the rotation. They signed Joe Ingles as a free agent after an ACL tear and he returned in December earlier than expected. Milwaukee even expanded its bench recently, adding experienced defenseman Goran Dragic and center Meyers Leonard to a 10-day contract. Both Crowder and Dragik have previous experience in finals.

Middleton played 30 minutes on Tuesday for the first time since recovering from injury and finished with 24 points and 11 assists. He looked like he was starting to rebuild his own All-Star form after missing the last 10 playoff games in 2022 and 39 of the first 46 games this season. When he plays, the Bucks are 19-4 with 67 wins all season.

However, such an extended play without Middleton forced the Bucks to adjust and gave Holiday the opportunity to become more aggressive. His 19.7 points per game is his best since the 2018-19 season with the New Orleans Pelicans, and he makes 15.6 shots per night, more than in any of his first two seasons with Milwaukee.

“We had a lot of different lineups at the beginning of the season, a lot of players were injured, coming in and out of the squad, so to be honest, it was a bit of a blessing,” Lopez said. “A lot of guys need to play, figure things out. We need to play with different squads, build relationships on the court. And now that we’re back, for the most part pretty much healthy, I think the benefits.”


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