On Jan. 5, 2016, the Milwaukee Bucks lost 117-106 on the road against the Chicago Bulls. Jimmy Butler lit them up with 32 points and 10 assists, Pau Gasol barely missed in his 26-point outing and the Bulls shot 55.4% from the field. It was the story of their season. The defense, vaunted the year before, fouled too often and couldn’t stop anyone in the post. The offense struggled to capitalize on free throws and couldn’t trust their bench (66 of 240 total minutes).
The squad fell to 14-23 that night. The big offseason acquisition of Greg Monroe and return of Jabari Parker from injury were supposed to propel the young Bucks to new heights after a hard-fought playoff series against the Bulls the previous spring.
As I watched Giannis Antetokounmpo drain a step-back jumper over the outstretched arm of Lance Thomas on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but smile. What a difference a year makes.
Antetokounmpo was dazzling under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden as he led the Bucks to an improbable victory, coming back from 13 down and causing a late turnover leading to his buzzer-beater.
And that shot has resulted in unexpected national attention. As ESPN was broadcasting the rematch between the two teams, you could clearly see the difference. For the past decade that pregame show would be focused on the other team – guys like Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, etc. – and largely ignoring the Bucks.
The Greek Freak has flipped the script.
Giannis’ smiling face was at the forefront of the advertising for the game. Jalen Rose and Chauncey Billups were sitting across from each other, debating whether or not Antetokonmpo is the second-best player in the East behind Lebron James. That HAD to be a dream, right?
Wrong. Most of this season, the Milwaukee Bucks have been in the top ten in both defensive and offensive efficiency. According to ESPN Stats and Information Group, 16 of the last 20 championship teams have done the same. While they’ve hovered around .500 (18-18) and are technically the 9th seed in the East, they’re only 2.5 games back from the 4th seed. The numbers show a team that fits into the top ten in the entire league.
Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks averaging 23.9p/9.1r/5.9a/2b/1.9s going into Friday, and the hype has reached a fever pitch. NBA.com listed him 5th in the MVP race, the world has decided that he should be an All Star more than a half million times over as of Thursday, and barring a major setback he’ll be the first Buck to represent Milwaukee at the break since Michael Redd in 2004. Who knows, maybe Parker will make it a second.
There’s plenty of work to do. This particular team has a habit of dominating a game before falling apart in the 4th quarter as they did Friday night against the Knicks, blowing a 13-point lead. They seem to play down to weaker competition and up to their tougher opponents. This young team needs consistency from night to night to call themselves one of the top ten in the league, but for now this team is on a playoff pace.
The slip-ups will continue when your two superstars are barely old enough to have a beer. Even after those losses, enjoy yourself. This is the best, most exciting Milwaukee Bucks team we’ve seen in more than a decade.