After an up-and-down four game stretch that started with two disappointing losses to the Pelicans and Hornets and finished with consecutive blowout wins over the Trail Blazers and Pacers, the Bucks will travel to Cleveland for a two-game series. The first of those games is tonight. Let’s take a quick look at the basics before jumping into some things to watch.
FAST FACTS –
The Game: Milwaukee Bucks (13-8) @ Cleveland Cavaliers (10-12)
The Place: Cleveland, Ohio
The Time: 6:30 Central
The TV: FS Wisconsin
The Likely Starters:
Bucks – Holiday, DiVincenzo, Middleton, G. Antetokounmpo, Lopez
Cavs – Sexton, Garland, Okoro, Prince, Drummond
Cavs: Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova are out. Andre Drummond (back) played 22 minutes on Wednesday night. Larry Nance, a potential starter in Prince’s place, did not play Wednesday with a wrist injury.
WHAT TO KNOW –
- Cleveland’s defense cooling off after hot start
Back on January 15th, the Cavs were rolling defensively, allowing just 105 points per 100 possessions. It had them second in the league in defensive efficiency through thirteen games. In the nine games since, they’re allowing 114.3 points per 100 possessions, almost a full 10 points more. That’s way down at 23rd in the league over that span. The Cavs were able to hold nine of their first thirteen opponents to 105 points or less, but that has happened just twice in the last nine games. The Bucks enter the game leading the league in scoring efficiency, and they will have the chance to take advantage of a suddenly struggling Cleveland defense.
- But the Cavs’ offense is picking up some of the slack
Back on January 15 at the thirteen-game mark, the Cavs were dead last in the league in scoring efficiency, averaging a meager 100.8 points per 100 possessions. They were 2.8 points behind the next worst team. In the last nine games, they’ve risen up to 108.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s a substantial difference, even if Cleveland was still just 24th in the league over that period. If you compare the offensive and defensive numbers, the Cavs were scoring 4.2 points less than they were giving up over those first thirteen games. In the more recent nine-game stretch, they’ve been scoring 5.9 points less than they’ve been giving up. That’s worse, but it’s not as bad as you might expect given just how far the defense has fallen.
- Cavs are still worse than record would suggest
At 10-12, Cleveland sits in a tie for the East’s seven seed. That gives them the eighteenth best record in the league. Those numbers aren’t particularly impressive to begin with, but the underlying team statistics are worse. Over the full season, they’re 25th in net rating, behind both the Pistons and Wizards. The same is true of average point differential, and they rank 24th in SRS. They’re 26th in expected record, which has them two games down at 8-14.
It’s very possible to exceed these numbers over the course of a full season. Last year’s Hornets, for example, were 22nd in winning percentage and 27th in point differential. They ended up beating their expected record by four games while a team like the Mavs went in the opposite direction and finished six games worse than their expected record. These stats, however, are generally a better indicator of actual team quality than record, and it’s more likely than not that the Cavs will see their record drop over the remainder of the season if they don’t improve.
- Bucks shaping up in the opposite direction
Guess who has underlying statistics that place them in a better position than their simple win-loss record? Your Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, despite the sounds of calamity you might hear on social media, are fifth in the league by winning percentage. The other numbers tell an even prettier story. They’re first by SRS, expected record (16-5), average point differential, and net rating. That’s a lot of firsts. The Bucks, in other words, are really dang good. That has not changed, and they can only get better as their reworked bench finds its groove with the holdovers from last season. It is worth noting that the exact spot a team sits in is prone to more variance than usual at this relatively early stage in the season. The Bucks could lose by 10 tonight and see the Lakers or Clippers win a game by 25, and they might drop a spot.
With that said, here’s the top of the league by average margin of victory as of Thursday afternoon –
Milwaukee has a nice gap for themselves at the very top, and they’re well ahead of anyone else that plays in the East. As we’ve learned the last few seasons, the playoffs are the true test. We’ll see when we get there. But the gnashing and wailing over this start to the season has been nothing short of ridiculous. The Bucks are one of the best teams in the league. Enjoy it.
- Sexton and Garland enjoying great offensive play
Cleveland’s offense may not be particularly impressive as a whole, but their young backcourt has played very well. Sexton is averaging more than 24 points and 4 assists per game, and he’s making 44.4% of his threes. Garland is averaging more than 16 points and 5 assists per game, and he’s making 43.1% of his threes. The Cavs have a long way to go on the road to building a contender, but they have to be feeling a lot better about their young guards than they did last year.
- The Cavs don’t shoot the deep ball
Cleveland is one of just two teams averaging less than 30 three-point attempts per game with 26.9. They’re also not particularly efficient from deep. A 35.7% hit rate has them 20th in the league. Now, the Knicks rank behind the Cavs in both three-point attempts and three-point percentage and they absolutely lit up the Bucks, so we could see the Cavs turn in a premier performance from the perimeter. It’s just not all that likely in this specific game, regardless of what you think about Milwaukee’s defensive strategy.
WHAT TO WATCH –
Here are a few quick things to keep an eye on in this one:
- The availability of Nance and Drummond
I would imagine that Drummond plays at the very least after he played Wednesday night, but both of these guys will play a key role for Cleveland if they take the court. Drummond is once again leading the league in rebounding with 14.6 per contest, and he’s also Cleveland’s second-leading scorer at just over 18 points per game. His ability to protect the rim is crucial, though he has really struggled to score efficiently on the other end despite his high point totals. His 53.6% field goal percentage on shots within three feet of the rim is more than 6% worse than his previous career low season.
Then there is Nance, who brings a lot of different things to the table. He’s making nearly 39% of his threes, ranks third on the team in both rebounds and assists, and is second in the entire league with 2.1 steals per game. He’s a highly impactful role player who is sorely missed whenever he’s not out there.
- DiVincenzo trying to build on Pacers performance
DiVincenzo scored 16 points and made all four of his three-point attempts on Wednesday night. It was a promising sight after just four double digit scoring performances in the fourteen previous games. DiVincenzo started the season red hot with 81 points in his first six appearances. He shot 20-30 from deep in those games. In the fourteen games between that start and the Pacers game, he scored 104 total points and shot just 17-60 from three. That’s three less makes in double the attempts. The Bucks are simply better when DiVincenzo is a scoring threat, and it would be great to see him build off what he did against the Pacers with another good performance.
- Looking for big night from Middleton
Khris Middleton is having a fantastic overall season, averaging roughly 21 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds per game on a 50/40/90 shooting line. But, after scoring 20 or more points in twelve of his first seventeen games, he has failed to hit that total four straight times. Those four games have still resulted in a 15.75 points average on a 49/52/93 line, so this is no slump. It would still be good to see a bigger role for Khris in this one after a few games with less looks. The only three games this season where he has taken less than ten shots have been the last three. Feed the man.
- Getting back on track against losing teams
Last week’s win over the Raptors brought the Bucks to 10-2 against teams under .500. They then proceeded to lose two in a row to the Pelicans and Hornets. After getting back on track overall against winning teams in Portland and Indiana, can the Bucks regain their rhythm against losing teams tonight?
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