The Bucks are the top team in the east for the second year in a row. They have, for the second year in a row, the best record in the NBA, the MVP frontrunner, and they lead the NBA in almost every statistical category. However, they had all of this last year, and were knocked out of the playoffs in the conference finals by Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. The Bucks hope to take their regular season dominance into the postseason, and there are three things that make this year different than last year.
1. Giannis’ Improved Range
No, the Bucks are not going to win a title because Giannis starts raining threes like the Splash Bros out west. Giannis might not hit a three the whole postseason, and the Bucks could still win the title. However, Giannis’ new and improved three point shot has opened up the floor for this Bucks team. Last year, teams were ok with letting Giannis shoot from the outside, if it meant they were more likely to stop him in the paint. Now, you can’t leave him open on the perimeter. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer has not made it a secret that Giannis has the green light to shoot whenever he wants, and he knows that will force teams to guard Giannis on the three point line, which will open up the lane and allow him to have easier drives to the bucket. And, if you do decide to leave him open, Giannis will shoot it, and he can make you pay. He proved that against LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bucks have the best defense in the league. Period. Not the Clippers, who have three of the best individual defenders in the league between Kawhi, Paul George and Pat Beverly. Not the Raptors, with rim protectors like Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. It’s the Bucks, with or without Giannis on the floor. When Giannis plays, their defensive efficiency rating is 102.0. When Giannis sits, that number rises to only 103.3, still almost a full point better than the Lakers, who are second in the league. Their deep bench deserves the credit for this. Donte DiVincenzo has proven himself to be a willing and capable defender, and he is joined by Sterling Brown in the second unit. Those two, along with Robin Lopez, keep the Bucks in games when Giannis sits, so when he comes back into the game, he’s not trying to dig his team out of a massive hole.
3. Playoff Experience
Last year was the first time the Bucks had made it out of the first round since 2001, when they ran into Allen Iverson’s Sixers in the conference finals. Considering that last year was this teams first experience trying to make a deep playoff run, they performed pretty well. They also know how teams are going to try and beat them now. Giannis will be more comfortable in the postseason this year than he was last year. He has great perimeter shooting around him in Kyle Korver, George Hill, and Khris Middleton. If those guys can shoot well enough in the playoffs, it will make things that much easier for Giannis to dominate the paint as he’s done all year.
The Bucks have the formula. A young superstar who can take over a game. A stifling defense with or without the superstar. Perimeter shooting to spread out the floor. Real playoff experience against the best teams in the league. The Bucks championship window is open, and, barring any dramatic, unforeseen changes (because those never happen in sports, right?), the Bucks are coming for their first title since 1971.