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The Bucks Are Playing Their Best Basketball at the Perfect Time

Why the whole league should fear the deer

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The last few months have left the Bucks’ postseason hopes up in the air, and not in a smooth, upgraded-to-first-class way — I’m talking passenger on a skywriting jet, a ride dipping so steep to make the “L” that you aren’t sure it’ll make it back up. After going .500 for the first two months of the season, the team and its watchers have experienced a bad January, a worse February, and, now, a March that’s made them believers. Oh, look, the pilot spelled out “sixth seed” in the sky.

Since March 3, the Bucks have had the best record in the league, beating Sacramento on Wednesday for their 10th win in 12 games. “We talk about our defense being our offense,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said after beating the Kings. And if you saw them pitch a shutout in the final three minutes against the Blazers on Tuesday on the way to an away victory, Kidd’s assessment checks out. After dropping only two in a six-game West Coast road trip, the Bucks are currently the Eastern Conference sixth seed, a game below tying Atlanta for the fifth spot. It is a drastically different position than two months back, when it seemed that Milwaukee’s poor defending might keep them out of the postseason entirely.

Back then, the Bucks defense — which was collectively producing stops at the same rate as a Jahlil Okafor cutout and some Trail Blazers incense would — was only one of the team’s issues. Jabari Parker got benched for telling reporters he was “getting thrashed” for speaking up during a players-only meeting, and Kidd was struggling on how to best manage the power-forward rotation. While teams like the Wizards and the Heat flipped early-season narratives, the Bucks were wandering off a cliff. January 16 was the last time Milwaukee would be a .500 team for almost two months, dropping 10 of its next 12 games.

Now, as the season winds down, and after a successful West Coast road trip, the Bucks are driving through your city with Drake’s “Glow” playing. They are the team your team doesn’t want to see in the playoffs after almost missing the playoffs altogether — how the hell did they do it?

More Intense Defense

The Bucks’ midseason dip in defense was no ordinary “Is it All-Star yet?” plunge. For a month after the January 15 Hawks loss, Milwaukee opponents got more shots off than Shea Serrano’s entire Twitter following. It was a park-for-free and park-all-day situation: The Bucks suddenly allowed opposing offenses to shoot 30.5 shots behind the arc per game — fourth worst in the league — above only Charlotte in terms of their opponents’ field goal makes. Entering March, a month in which perhaps a team or two has initiated tanking, the Bucks’ defensive rating was ninth worst, and, given the athleticism and length of the roster, a pathetic 27th in defensive rebounding.

Ah, what glorious defensive aggression the end of the season can bring. (Should you tell the Cavs? Or should I?) After allowing Portland only one 3-pointer out of nine second-half tries Tuesday, Jason Terry said the team remembered the “energy, effort, trust, and discipline” that gave the Bucks their start.

Though through its past 15 games, Milwaukee’s pace is still one of the slowest in the league, Terry’s “energy” and “effort” reasoning is right on: The Bucks are in the top 10 in steals and are forcing the fourth-most turnovers during that stretch, with an impressive 15.5 per game. The lockdown has helped them become one of the only five teams that keeps its opponents under 100 points (averaging 99.4). Over the entire season, Milwaukee has allowed the 22nd-most shots from deep, but over the past 15 games, it’s in the top three, shrinking opponents’ tries by an average of five per game. Only the Grizzlies, a team with an official pace rating of refrigerated syrup, allowed fewer field goal attempts.

Return of Middleton

Due to the early-season returns on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker, it was perhaps easy to overlook what a loss Khris Middleton was. The 6-foot-8, multipositional dynamo went down with a hamstring injury in September, and now that he’s back, Milwaukee is playing its best ball. In Middleton’s season debut, February 8 against Miami, Parker tore his left ACL for the second time. If there were ever a time for a team’s second-highest-scoring player to go down (there isn’t), the day the third-highest contributor returns is at least something of a patch.

Middleton’s first six games saw him play mostly limited minutes, but since his return to regularly playing over 30 minutes a night, he’s been averaging 18 points, nearly four assists, and 1.5 steals. During the road trip, he’s been shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from deep, going 11-for-18 against the Lakers (30 points) and 11-for-22 against the Blazers (26 points).

No Jabari

For all the impressions Parker can make offensively, he is not a fixer-upper on the other end of the floor and he can be blatantly detrimental to a team fighting for the postseason. With wishes for a speedy recovery and the knowledge that his scoring contributions made it possible to overlook his defense, the Bucks’ numbers are better with him off the court than on the court. With Parker on, Milwaukee allowed 109.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s the third worst on the team for all players with more than three games played. That would also be the third-worst defensive rating among NBA teams.

Pregame Rituals

As this winning streak comes to fruition, a recent investigation determined that Milwaukee has the “most elaborate” pregame PB&J setup. Crunchy. Almond. Smooth. Jams. Jellies. Wheat. White. Playoffs.