For the second time in three years, Coach Jason Kidd has the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs and primed for a run.
After missing the postseason last year, the 2016-17 season saw quite a bit of growth from a young, talented Bucks team, and its share of rollercoaster moments, too.
The Bucks got the year off to a solid start, going 20-18 through its first 38 games. But then things seemed to fly off the handle. Constantly getting outscored in the first quarter and being unable to claw back into games, the Bucks lost 12 of 14 games and fell to 22-30.
It appeared it was going to be another season without Milwaukee in the playoffs. Things went from bad to worse when young star Jabari Parker was lost for the season with a torn ACL
But right before the All-Star break, something clicked and while the Bucks lost a key contributor in Parker, during a time it appeared they needed him most, they gained a catalyst in Khris Middleton. The fifth-year swingman missed the first 50 games of the season due to a torn hamstring suffered during training camp. But as Coach Kidd worked him back into the rotation, the team’s play started to improve.
As the season wound down, Milwaukee was a different team, getting off to fast starts, winning several double-digit games and even holding on to the close ones. From February 11 to April 1, the Bucks went 18-6, including a six-game win streak. In the process, they went from a team that might not make the playoffs to a playoff lock, fighting for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee finished the season 42-40 and second place overall in the Central Division, sixth overall in the Eastern Conference.
Now the Bucks enter their second postseason in three years brimming with confidence and playing their best ball, making them a threat in a jumbled Eastern Conference. Coach Kidd, a fourth-year coach entering his third postseason on the sidelines after a career highlighted by 17 seasons making the playoffs, three finals run and a championship with the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, knows their biggest challenges are ahead of them.
“Everything is heightened, each possession. The runs of games are intensified. Everything that’s small becomes bigger,” he said. “We have to pay attention to the details to have success.”
AN EMERGENT SUPERSTAR
It goes without saying that the Bucks wouldn’t be where they are without Giannis Antetokounmpo.
One of the league’s rising stars, “The Greek Freak,” had a breakout season.
If it weren’t for the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden averaging a triple-double, or close to it in Harden’s case, then Antetokounmpo would be given serious MVP consideration.
Regardless, Antetokounmpo did something this season that no other player has ever done before. He finished in the top 20 of total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
What led to this sudden success? Coach Kidd provided the catalyst, when he decided before the season that he was going to use Antetokounmpo as his primary ball handler.
“We’re going to go forward with him handling the ball,” Kidd told reporters back in late March, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You can call him point guard, point forward, point center, however you want to look at it. With him having the ball and the pressure he puts on the defense and his ability to find guys, has been a plus for us.”
Antetokounmpo also improved his numbers in all categories from the previous season, thus making him the favorite to win the Most Improved Player award.
Now the real season begins, and for the Bucks things get started on Saturday evening at 4:30 p.m. CT against the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors, who went 3-1 against Milwaukee this season, are a tough matchup for the Bucks. Coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Raptors are hungry to not only return there, but push forward to the NBA Finals.
“They’ve got some talented players,” Kidd said when asked about Milwaukee’s struggles against Toronto. “Talent always wins… When you talk about (DeMar) DeRozan and Lowry, those guys have been together for some time and they’ve been through the process.”
Coach Kidd is plenty familiar with the Raptors. Though Jason’s teams are just 4-11 against the Raptors during the regular season, in his first season as a Coach back in 2014 in Brooklyn, J-Kidd’s Nets came up against a tough Raptors team in the first round. Toronto pushed Brooklyn to the limit in a thrilling series but the sixth-seeded Nets emerged with a Game 7 win in Toronto over the third-seed Raptors.
Jason’s Bucks will be looking for a repeat of the 6 over 3 upset of Toronto this year. But they’ll have to compete with a raucous home-court advantage owned by the league’s only Canadian team.
“We’ve already talked about the atmosphere in Toronto, it’s like no other, it’s pretty cool to be involved,” J-Kidd said. “They really get behind their team. We’ve talked about the noise and the communication that everybody has to get on the same page. Again, paying attention to the details and understanding what’s happening is going to be key.”
J-Kidd is trying to lead the Bucks to their first playoff series win since the 2000-01 season when the team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks are, however, one of the hottest teams in the league and all three of the losses to Toronto came before the start of February.
“We feel good about ourselves,” Antetokounmpo said. “In the second half after the all-star break, we played great basketball, team basketball. A lot of people expect a lot from us, to do better than two years ago.”
It will be a matchup relying heavily on defense, as the Raptors and Bucks rank eighth and ninth respectively in the league in points allowed.
A big key to the series will be how the Bucks start the game. Each of the four games these two teams played this year, the Raptors lead after the first quarter. The one time the Bucks defeated Toronto, they were able to come back and take a lead at halftime.
Both teams are also very different then when they played a majority of their matchups.
The Bucks are in need of big performances from rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, something they were not as dependent on early in the season. In each of the three games Milwaukee lost to Toronto, both Brogdon and Maker started on the bench. In the one win, both were in the starting lineup.
For Toronto, veteran newcomers P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka will be players to keep an eye on. The two elder statesman were brought in at the trade deadline to give the Raptors additional playoff experience and toughness.
“They have talented guys and you add (P.J.) Tucker and (Serge) Ibaka to that mix they’ve gotten better,” Jason said. “They’re a tough opponent, they know how to play and they’re well-coached.”
Both guys are lock down defenders, and Tucker will likely be given the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo. If he is able to shut him down, the Bucks will be in trouble.
This should be a very entertaining first round matchup.
The Raptors are no longer a cinderella, but instead an experienced team that could legitimately win the Eastern Conference. Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are one of the best backcourt duo’s in the league. They have been playing together now for several years and can lead their team to a victory against anyone.
With that being said, the Bucks have the most talented player on the court in Antetokounmpo. But he can’t lead the Bucks to victory by himself. If the Bucks are going to pull an upset, they will need Khris Middleton to be a prime time scorer. Additionally, the play of Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley off the bench could give the Bucks a swing in their favor.
This is a new Bucks team. Coach Kidd has beaten the Raptors in the playoffs before. Stopping All-stars like DeRozan and Lowry isn’t easy, but Kidd has turned this Bucks team into a defensive force when they are at their best. Game 1 tips on Saturday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. CT and can be seen on ESPN and FS-Wisconsin.
Here is how the schedule shakes out:
Game 1 – Sat. @ TOR – 4:30 p.m. CT tip
Game 2 – Tues. @ TOR – 6 p.m. CT tip
Game 3 – Thu. vs. TOR – 7 p.m. CT tip
Game 4 – Sat. vs. TOR – 3 p.m. CT tip
Game 5 – April 24 (if necessary) @ TOR – 6 p.m. CT tip
Game 6 – April 27 (if necessary) vs. TOR – TBA
Game 7 – April 29 (if necessary) @ TOR – TBA