MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks staged another in a series of artful basketball exhibitions on Friday night at Fiserv Forum. Giannis Antetokounmpo padded his MVP résumé with skillful efficiency and gaudy athleticism (32 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists in 27 minutes, before taking yet another fourth quarter off in a blowout). Of those 32 points, 28 came in the half court, and his plus-44 was the best mark of his career. Nobody makes the game look more effortless right now.
The Bucks whipped the ball around the floor with precision — gorgeous interior passes in the half court, pinpoint pass-aheads on the break, weakside reversals to open shooters. They rebounded a mystifying 91.2% of rebounding opportunities on the defensive glass while also draining a season-high 21 3-pointers.
This is not far off the norm for Milwaukee in recent months. The Bucks scored 70 points before intermission on Friday night — an NBA-high 16th time this season they’ve crossed that threshold in a half. They led by 51 points early in the fourth quarter. When it was mercifully over, the Bucks — minus their second-most productive player, Khris Middleton — walloped the Oklahoma City Thunder 133-86.
Yet to those who handicap title prospects for the league’s top contender, none of this matters.
The Bucks are a regular-season tiger, say the skeptics.
This is a team whose success between October and April is the result of an air-tight system on both ends propelled by a dynamic superstar with an athleticism that can slice through less-motivated defenses during the dog days of winter.
Need a head coach to win you a No. 1 seed? Then Mike Budenholzer, with his knack for structure and his emphasis on good habit-building, is your guy, but home court has yet to yield him a Finals appearance.
Middleton? Fine for an 82-game romp, but iffy in the glare of the postseason.
What is the origin of this Bucks-kepticism?
Milwaukee is burdened by an albatross of pro sports — the dreaded, blown 2-0 series lead. A double-overtime loss to the Raptors in Game 3 of last season’s Eastern Conference finals sent the Bucks reeling. They wouldn’t win another game against a seasoned opponent that featured the kind of grizzled veterans (Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green) who can beat you with poise.
The NBA’s regular season has never carried less import (load management, playoff fields almost entirely set by January, the relative meaninglessness of 1-of-82), which has only brightened the spotlight on the playoffs. So even in a week when the Bucks returned to Canada and soundly beat the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night and went ballistic against a steady playoff team in Oklahoma City, little gets priced into the appraisal.
The historic proportions of Milwaukee’s dominance this season might be discounted, but they can’t be overstated.
The Bucks’ 12.8 point differential per 100 possessions ranks them as the most lethal team in NBA history.
Only three teams have ever posted better records through 59 games than the Bucks, now 51-8 after Friday’s win.
Milwaukee’s league-leading defense — 101.3 points surrendered per 100 possessions — is more than three points better than second-ranked Toronto. To put this into perspective, that’s more daylight than there is between the No. 2 Raptors and the No. 7 Pacers.
In an odd expression of NBA irony, the better the Bucks perform in the regular season, the more they prove their critics’ point: The Bucks are a great regular-season team, not a great regular-season team.
“It’s to be expected,” Budenholzer told ESPN. “In our league — to some degree, in our world — until you’ve done something, people kind of doubt you.”
Optics drive perception, and this doubt stems from some popular NBA notions. Middleton doesn’t scream “second star,” even if he posted true shooting percentages of 71.9 and 56.7, respectively, each of the past two postseasons. If the commentariat didn’t doubt the yet-to-achieve Warriors in 2015, it’s largely because their top performer was a shooter, a title Antetokounmpo can’t yet claim. Ballet has a way of devolving into a tractor pull in the playoffs, and conventional wisdom states that stars need to be able to shoot off the dribble.
NBA teams can seem to be frozen in stasis between June and April, as if they don’t smooth their rough edges from the prior campaign during the next regular season. In their second season under Budenholzer, the roster has amassed more corporate knowledge. It’s a collection of players who have now suffered together, which means trust flows more freely.
Take Middleton, a player who traditionally preferred to know how and where his shots materialize in the half court. Initially slow to acclimate to the staff’s more improvisational read-oriented system, Middleton often got lost in the offense. This season, he and Budenholzer have met halfway: Middleton now plays with more intuition, while his coach has grown more flexible and willing to work in some Middleton-friendly sets — a middle pick-and-roll here, an iso from the mid-post there. For those who haven’t paid attention, Middleton has nearly doubled his win shares per 48 minutes this season.
“We’ve got more,” Antetokounmpo said to ESPN about this season’s team. “People don’t realize that. We are hungry. We have a great team, guys who can knock down shots and make plays. And their leader is not going to try anymore to jump over five guys in the paint, and all that s—.
“Last year, I was stubborn. This year, I want to win a championship. If there are five people in front of me who want to hold me back from that goal, there are four guys on the court who will make plays. That’s what makes us dangerous.”
Of course, declarations of confidence and pronouncements of hunger will persuade nobody, least of all a league that’s steadfast in its belief of … prove it. The Bucks can beat the ’96 Bulls by 40, and until it occurs on a court with a decal of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they’ve achieved nothing — a condition that makes them even more dangerous. As the Bucks approach the postseason — they clinched a berth nearly a week ago — they have all the talent of a No. 1 seed, coupled with the defiance of a scrappy but disrespected 6-seed.
“I like it,” Antetokounmpo said. “We just come out here and do our jobs. We know the game plan. We know each other better. We know the spots on the floor. We know how to attack. If people come out and say, ‘They’re going to win the championship,’ maybe we feel more pressure.
“But nobody thinks we can do it.”