There is a predictability to the Bucks that didn’t exist last season. In Mike Budenholzer’s short time as head coach, the offense has tidied up, clearing out unnecessary clutter in the midrange and giving its players order. Last season, Milwaukee was a mystery box; now, you know what to expect—a barrage of 3-pointers, dunks, and whatever other at-rim tricks exist up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s very long sleeves. The Bucks’ predictability is also what makes them borderline unstoppable, even against the best team in the Eastern Conference. On Sunday, Milwaukee’s winning formula was enough to edge out the Toronto Raptors, 104-99.
Toronto’s embrace of the 3-pointer helped spark its run to the top of the East last season. Now Milwaukee is making moves by harnessing the perimeter shot. With Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty at the helm last season, the Bucks were taking an average of 17.3 midrange shots per game. The Rockets, thought to be the apex of modern NBA offense, were limiting themselves to 6.9 midrange shots per game—even fewer than in 2016-17, before the arrival of midrange craftsman Chris Paul. So far this season, Milwaukee is down to 6.2 attempts in the Zone That Shall Not Be Named. Instead of settling for low-value jumpers, the Bucks’ go-to lineup features four snipers-in-training out on the arc, and one unicorn freestyling in the paint. Houston still reigns when it comes to staying out of the middle—it averages just five midrange jumpers per game, best in the league. But its offense as a whole is looking up at Milwaukee, which ranks second in the NBA in offensive rating at 114 points per 100 possession (the same mark as Houston last season). Budenholzer is beating Mike D’Antoni at his own game, even though the two have yet to play this season.
Toronto’s best chance of keeping up on Sunday was a counterstrike—fire 3s up to hang with Milwaukee’s top-scoring offense (119.4 points per game). The Raptors took 44 shots from from deep, around 10 more than they usually take and five more than Milwaukee did that night. And though they only made 15, they pushed the Bucks late, pulling within one with 28.9 seconds to play. But with 14.8 seconds to go, the Raptors overextended out on the perimeter on an out-of-bounds play; Antetokounmpo caught it at the arc, easily turned the corner, and coasted for a game-sealing dunk. That’s the other benefit to all of those 3s: When you step out farther to guard the perimeter players, it opens up the middle for a 6-foot-11 dunk machine.
Despite the Raptors’ loss, the game highlighted what makes the team so unique: They are so deep that coach Nick Nurse was able to work around Kyle Lowry’s shooting slump. (Lowry went 0-5 on Sunday, all of which were 3-pointers. The Raps guard is now 5-for-32 over his past five games.) Late in the game, Nurse went small, slotting Leonard at the 4 and Serge Ibaka at the 5 around three guards—Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Danny Green. The lineup had been used for just 16 minutes total before Sunday’s game. But with Ibaka (22 points) playing well, Nurse stuck with it, to big returns: The five-man combination had a 65.6 net rating in 12 minutes against the Bucks. Even while leading the league with 21 wins, there are still so many different combinations on this roster for Nurse to explore.
Yet for all the variations the Raptors can employ, none could topple the Bucks’ tried-and-true approach. Both teams can keep up defensively, and both have a superstar who has bought into their respective offensive systems, but Budenholzer’s formula could be what gives the Bucks the slight edge in a head-to-head matchup. It worked the first time these teams met, too, with the Bucks putting up 124 points against a deeper team in a game without Giannis or Kawhi.
The revolutionary 2016-17 Rockets team was ultimately done in by their strict adherence to their style, as the the Spurs (and, coincidentally, Leonard) forced Houston into the midrange in their second-round series and, ultimately, out of the playoffs. D’Antoni had a future MVP on that team in James Harden; Budenholzer may have one, too. The difference is if you force Giannis off the arc, he won’t just settle in the middle; he’s getting to the rim, like no other player in history.