The last time Milwaukee faced Oklahoma, the Bucks put on what could have been their worst showing of the season.
Against a team missing two key players, Milwaukee looked sluggish and uncoordinated on defense, and unpurposeful on the other end. Their bad habits reared their heads again, and the Bucks gave up 15-of-36 (41.7%) on three-pointers. During tense moments down the clutch, their offense stagnated, and hero ball took over.
That loss capped off what was a largely disappointing West Coast road trip that also saw the Bucks absorb losses to the Suns and the Jazz. In their games back at home, they dropped two more to the Toronto Raptors. They’ve lost five straight now, some of which were against teams they should have beaten with ease.
The Bucks are looking hobbled lately. How they come back from their losses will be a litmus test for this team’s heart and ability to adjust moving forward. Here are a few things to look out for ahead of tipoff.
If there’s anything the past three games have shown us, it’s that the Bucks offense dries up when their shooting does. Milwaukee’s shooting wings were effectively tranquilized in the team’s past three losses, during which they’ve shot 36.1% from deep.
For this team, the results of games really boil down to which team can make their shots.
The Bucks personnel is in a slump because they clearly have not made them when they should have. Many of Donte DiVincenzo’s shots against the Raptors were reasonably open. Pat Connaughton made his shots and was on fire for an entire half but then tapered off. Bryn Forbes shot 2-8 at OKC but seemed to bounce back quite nicely in the team’s next game.
Against the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks only made 29.4% of their threes. Milwaukee lives by the three and dies by the three. The three-ball leads to wins, and sometimes it really is that simple. Making their outside shots always spells a decisive advantage for the Bucks.
On the other hand, the stats suggest Oklahoma doesn’t shoot the basketball from outside very well relative to the rest of the NBA. Their 34.3% for the season on the three-ball is good for 27th in the league, yet they still found the space to go 15-of-36, or 41.7%, in their last outing against the Bucks.
Will Mike Budenholzer adjust?
Much has been said about Milwaukee’s defense of the three-ball. All that’s left is to see if they can retool their entire defensive philosophy altogether in a league much more adept with three-pointers than years past.
More and more, this is becoming a question that Bucks fans have had to ask themselves moving forward. Budenholzer is not exactly known for his ability to respond to adversity, especially when his go-to systems aren’t working. That this is even a question to begin with is very much a cause for concern, regardless of what you might think about the third-year Bucks coach.
Here’s something you may not want to hear: it’s a lie that he has done nothing to adjust. Throughout the season so far, we’ve seen him experiment with switching and blitzing. The in-game adjustments are there, to be sure.
But the eye test says that’s all they’ve been so far: at best, experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. At worst, performative displays to appease his worst critics. Either way, with the way the team has looked, they clearly have not worked out in his favor.
But the Bucks have shown in the past few days that there are schematic inefficiencies in Budenholzer’s offense and defense that simply won’t cut it. This is a team with title aspirations after all, and losing to teams below .500 is unacceptable. Small in-game adjustments won’t work if the entire system is broken.
If the Bucks are to rebound nicely in this coming game, this will have to mean changes on the part of Budenholzer. Middleton should get more shots. Connaughton will have to play less in favor of Torrey Craig. The Bucks movement in the half-court set will have to be stronger and more decisive.
Energy and effort
It’s a phrase that brings to mind war flashbacks of the Jason Kidd era in Milwaukee, but it’s not without merit these days. In Milwaukee’s losses so far, the fire and heart fans have come to expect of this team simply was not there. They moved sluggishly and incohesively, and the body language was downright awful at times.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a top nine defensive team but also have the second-worst offense in the league after the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ll be able to stop the Bucks from scoring, and their youth means they can get downhill in a hurry against Milwaukee’s 12th-ranked defense. They have the 8th fastest pace in the league right now, though the Bucks rely on transition just as much with their 5th-ranked pace, too.
NONSTOP ENERGY 🔥 pic.twitter.com/4PwdsE8trD
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 19, 2021
Though still relatively young, their roster deserves the respect of fans. Luguentz Dort is becoming one of the best on-ball defenders in the league before our eyes. Al Horford was one of the few Giannis stoppers in the NBA during his years in Boston and has not dropped off as much as his time in Philadelphia would initially suggest.
Losing five straight games should leave the Bucks with a chip on their shoulder, and rightfully so. Milwaukee should be treating every game in this losing streak as must-win games before bad habits get out of hand and start to take over.
Look for the Bucks to come out guns blazing on this one. The reigning MVP himself said it best: it’s not the end of the world. We know this team can come back from adversity. This early into the season, blowing the team up and panicking would be foolhardy.