Over the span of just one season, the Milwaukee Bucks meteorically evolved from the worst team in the league (2013-14 record: 15-67) to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs (2014-15 record: 41-41). With the addition of free-agent big man Greg Monroe and a healthy Jabari Parker returning to the fold, signs presumably pointed to incremental progress this season, at the very least.
Jason Kidd’s outfit was atrocious for the first month of the season, however, going 6-10 and yielding the fourth-worst net rating (minus-5.9), fourth-worst defensive rating and the sixth-worst offensive rating in the league. The execrable performances didn’t stop in the second month, either. Perhaps the best encapsulation of Milwaukee’s first two months of the season was Bango The Buck’s dejected reaction to DeAndre Jordan laying waste to the team’s new center (look in the upper right of the video, below).
Things have seemingly turned around for the Bucks, however; at 25-35, Milwaukee is still in the running for a second consecutive spot in the postseason — what would be the team’s first consecutive playoff appearances in more than a decade.
It’s a tall order: 14 of the team’s 22 remaining games are against opponents with winning records, and Milwaukee is six games back of the eighth seed. But while FiveThirtyEight gives the franchise a 1 percent shot of qualifying for the postseason, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the team’s much-improved defense might be able to do the improbable.
The 21-year-old has two career triple-doubles — both have come in the past four games.
Giannis Antetokounmpo records his 2nd triple-double in the last four games. pic.twitter.com/psG3HbUvEA
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 1, 2016
In the team’s six games since the all-star break, he’s churning out an ostentatious stat line: 17.3 points on 51.5 true shooting percentage, 12 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 steals per contest. His usage rate has also jumped from 21.4 to 22.7.
“Giannis, we all trust Giannis,” Kidd recently told ESPN.com. “[He] is a playmaker, as much as a scorer, as much as rebounder. He has vision.”
After his first career triple-double, set against the Los Angeles Lakers, even Kobe Bryant couldn’t help but remark on his aptitude: “[He] has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it is just a matter of him believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”
Milwaukee has beaten two would-be playoff teams since the all-star break, and should continue to utilize Antetokounmpo where he is most effective: inside the three-point arc, and attacking the basket, using his pterodactyl wingspan to get to the rim.
Kidd’s squad has elevated its defensive prowess since the all-star break, allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 3.3 fewer than it did before the break. Opponents are shooting 43.3 percent from the floor; the fourth-lowest mark in the league, and Milwaukee is swatting away 2.2 more shots per contest.
Milwaukee also must continue to force turnovers (the team is forcing 15.3 compared to 14.5 before the all-star break). Turnovers supply 18.6 percent of its total points, the third highest mark in the league. Points off turnovers have helped Kidd make the most out an offensive lineup that ranks outside the top 15 in true shooting percentage.
Behind a burgeoning superstar and an amended defensive unit, the Bucks, who admittedly need some assistance in the pursuit, could make a run for a playoff spot.