Bucks-Knicks Preview: Bucks Look to Bounce Back Ahead of Western Swing

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The Bucks saw their eight-game winning streak come to an abrupt and unimpressive end in last night’s loss to the Celtics. The game was all but over after Milwaukee allowed Boston to score 43 points in the third quarter and push their lead to 14 points. Boston’s top four scorers (Tatum, Walker, Smart, Brown) outscored Milwaukee’s top four (Middleton, Holiday, Antetokounmpo, Merrill) 96-67, and that tells you just about all you need to know. The good thing about the NBA is that the games don’t stop coming. Single games matter very little, and the Bucks are still 12-2 in their last fourteen. Rebounding tonight to keep that great form alive is crucial ahead of a six-game Western Conference road trip. With that in mind, let’s take a look at tonight’s game against the Knicks.

FAST FACTS – 

The Game: New York Knicks (23-22) @ Milwaukee Bucks (28-15) 

The Place: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Time: 7:00 Central

In feed

The TV: FSWisconsin 

The Likely Starters: 

Bucks – Holiday, DiVincenzo, Middleton, G. Antetokounmpo, Lopez 

Knicks – Randle and Barrett are guaranteed starters. Bullock, Noel, and Payton are the likely others, but there are injury questions for all three. 

Injury Report:

Bucks: Rodions Kurucs (abdominal injury) is still day-to-day and likely out of commission regardless. Bobby Portis (covid protocols) was out last night. Obviously don’t expect him back any time soon if he actually has covid, but, if he doesn’t, then it’s a complete guessing game for when he might return. It could even be tonight. PJ Tucker (calf) didn’t play last night and is questionable.

Knicks: New York has five players that are day-to-day. Randle (thigh) and Payton (hamstring) are probable. Bullock (ankle) is questionable. Noel (shoulder) and Rose (conditioning) do not yet have designations beyond “day-to-day”. Trade deadline moves also have Terrance Ferguson and Vincent Poirier awaiting their potential debuts with the Knicks. It seems possible that Ferguson goes tonight. 

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE KNICKS –

  • Julius Randle is thriving

There aren’t many players across the league that deserve more respect for what they’re doing this year than Randle. He’s been slowly building up to this since he entered the league back in 2015, and it’s just really impressive to see him turn into a star in New York.

And that’s absolutely what he is. Randle is averaging roughly 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. That makes him one of just four players to be topping 20 points, 10 boards, and 5 assists this season (Jokic, Giannis, Sabonis). He’s shooting better than 42% from three on nearly five average attempts. He’s leading the Knicks by massive amounts in VORP, BPM, win shares, and PER, and he ranks in the top twenty league-wide in the first three. To top this all off, he’s averaging more than 37 minutes per game – second to only James Harden. It’s certainly fair to question whether Randle can actually shoot this well consistently moving forward, but there’s no question that he’s become an elite player. 

One thing to note – the Bucks held him to 7 points (his lowest total of the season) on 3-12 shooting when they played a few weeks ago. Repeating that instead of his 29-point performance back in that infamous rout at the beginning of the season would put the Bucks in a great position. 

  • RJ Barrett is the clear #2

Barrett is a very good defender on the wing, and he, like Randle, is a key cog in Tom Thibodeau’s machine. At 34 minutes per game, he’s the only Knick other than Randle to be playing at least 30 minutes a night. He’s a clear second on the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game. He’s also averaging a decent amount of rebounds (6) and assists (3). Barrett isn’t a particularly efficient scorer, but he’s capable of getting his own shot within the arc. He wouldn’t be getting about 15 shots per game if he wasn’t at least a decent enough scorer. With that said, don’t expect him to be dribbling into too many threes – 98% of his made triples have been off of an assist this season. 

  • Eleven players averaging between 10 and 30 minutes per game

Austin Rivers’s deadline departure cut this number down from twelve, though Ferguson could theoretically partially take his place in the rotation (minutes-wise at least). Regardless, the main point here is that Thibs has a ton of different options to play alongside Randle and Barrett. 

Mitchell Robinson is an athletic beast who can control the rim on both ends. His center counterpart, Nerlens Noel, plays a very similar role. Those two combine for 3.5 blocks and more than 14 rebounds per game, and both shoot better than 62% from the floor on limited shots. 

The Knicks have three significant point guards, starting with Payton and Rose. They’re second and third to Randle in assists per game. Both are solid, veteran playmakers. Both also shoot quite a bit when they’re in the game despite their relative inefficiency, so look for them to get their shots if they play tonight. Rose is the only one of the two that can shoot from deep. Immanuel Quickley is the other point guard to watch, though he’s more of a scoring guard than anything. He’s even less efficient from within the arc than Rose and Payton, but he’s a solid shooter. Quickley is going to create his own look as often as just about anyone on this team. With Rivers gone, he’s the clear leader when it comes to unassisted threes. Look for him to make his own offensive opportunities throughout the game. 

Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are both veteran shooting guards. Bullock leads the team in threes taken and made per game, and he’s a consistent threat from deep throughout the game. He’s also very dependable and will typically play as much as just about anyone in this group. Burks is going to get his own shot more, and he’s third on the team in scoring ahead of Quickley, Rose, and Payton. 

Those are the main seven to watch. The other four will only be used occasionally, though they are certainly options. Taj Gibson has played a ton of games for Thibs, and he’s still a reliable rebounder and finisher. He played 20+ minutes in six of the last ten games. He played 0 minutes in the other four. Obi Toppin has struggled to carve out a large role, but we will likely see him for at least a few minutes. He’s flashed explosive offensive talent but has been relatively unrefined defensively, which is far from surprising. He needs time to develop. Then there’s Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, two holdovers from prior years. They’re not good, but, if they do play, watch for Knox’s shooting or Ntilikina’s ability to disrupt things defensively. Those are the two areas where they’re most likely to have an impact. 

  • Knicks are very good defensively

New York is third in the league in defensive rating, which means only two teams allow less points than them per 100 possessions. This won’t surprise anyone who knows anything about Thibs. This is just a tough team. They’re going to make the Bucks work. They allow the lowest field goal and three-point percentage, the second-fewest fast break points, the third-fewest points in the paint, the fifth-fewest second chance points, and the seventh-fewest points off turnovers. There really isn’t any area where they’re particularly susceptible to points being scored, and they don’t rely on steals (20th) or blocks (19th) either. This is just solid defense. The Bucks did score 134 on them a few weeks ago, but that was the most anyone has scored on the Knicks all year. It was just the second time a team had scored more than 121. Don’t expect it to happen again tonight. 

  • The offense is a different story

The reason that the Knicks are 23-22 and not up with similarly great defensive teams like the Lakers, Sixers, and Suns is their offense, which ranks 23rd in the league by scoring efficiency (points per 100 possessions). They’re in the bottom five in threes taken and made. They just don’t score much. Another thing to know – the Knicks really don’t get many assists either. Only the Blazers score a higher percentage of their points unassisted. Now, Portland has a very good offense, and we know from annual results that assist percentage won’t determine offensive quality. It does reveal offensive approach, however, so look for the Knicks to be creating plenty of individual offense. 

  • Pace will be key

The Knicks are the slowest team in the league. The Bucks are the third-fastest. That makes a lot of sense. New York is a poor, isolation-heavy offensive team that relies on its defense. Their games can be a grind. The Bucks, meanwhile, are far more free-flowing, and they love to get out in transition with their athleticism and length. Whoever wins this pace battle will be in a great position to win the game as a whole. Who can control the pace? Who can adjust when things aren’t going as fast (or slow) as they might like?

WHAT TO WATCH –

  • Milwaukee’s energy

The good thing about last night is that no one reached 30 minutes of playing time. Brook only played 19 minutes. That should allow everyone to go all-out tonight, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on the energy levels. The Knicks are not an easy team to play against on any night. Will the Bucks have the energy and the spirit to grind this one out on the second half of a back-to-back? Look for Thanasis to potentially get some early minutes if a spark is needed.  

  • Can Bucks bounce back?

As I mentioned in the lead-in, the Bucks are about to start a six-game road trip. That trip begins with the Clippers and Lakers in LA and also includes the Blazers, Kings, Warriors, and Mavs. There’s no such thing as an easy cross-conference road trip even if the teams could be more difficult, especially with LeBron and AD out. That means that heading in with some momentum would be pretty beneficial. The Bucks won’t be hanging their heads even if they do lose tonight after their 12-2 run, but a win in this one would keep that momentum going and put us in a great spot heading into LA. 

  • Keeping Khris going

Middleton has been playing good basketball lately. He’s dropped 20 or more in four of the last six games, and he scored 19 on 7-11 shooting in one of the exceptions last night. He’s 37-68 from the floor over the last four games. That includes 13-19 from deep. This is the Khris we want and need, and another good performance against a tough defensive team would likely be a nice confidence booster. 

  • Getting Brook’s efficiency up

Before last night’s short stint, Lopez had scored in double figures in twelve consecutive games, easily a season-high. He did it despite not shooting particularly well. For example, he’s shooting just 26.5% from three in March. He’s scoring because the Bucks are feeding him. He’s taken at least 8 shots in the last thirteen games, including last night, where he attempted a shot almost every other minute. There’s a pretty clear effort being made to get him going offensively, and hopefully the efficiency starts to match the volume soon. 

  • Will Portis or Tucker play?

It’s very possible that both are out again tonight, which will open up some opportunities. Sam Merrill took advantage last night with 15 points in 20 minutes. Who might step up tonight if neither can go?

 

Prediction: Bucks 116, Knicks 108. Let’s get back on track.

 

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