The Bucks have had to navigate through injuries and the “health and safety protocols,” primarily with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday each missing at least 12 games. However, they are still within striking distance of the one-seed in the Eastern Conference, as they only trail by the Chicago Bulls by 2 games.
The Memphis Grizzlies are in for quite a challenge, though we have seen them rise to the occasion and beat the league’s elite while on the road. Can they do so against the Bucks?
I catch up with Riley Feldmann of SB Nation’s Brew Hoop — the SB Nation blog for the Milwaukee Bucks — to talk about these two teams squaring off tonight.
1) Post-championship season going for Milwaukee?
If you know anything about Bucks fans, you know that we’re a notoriously unhappy, nigh nihilistic bunch. Somehow, against all odds, the team rose above a lifetime of expectations and brought us a trophy whose glow we will bask in for decades. This season has dented optimism a bit for Bucks fans, but only because we’ve yet to resolve the cognitive dissonance of a title-defending team that sometimes looks lackadaisical against average to below-average opponents. Injuries and Covid have had a role to play in that, yes, but when you win it all the fan expectation is that it is your duty to beat the hell out of every other team from now until oblivion. “You’re the best in the world! Go win!” we beg in vain. With a record of 27-19 and a recent 2-6 run that saw us lose to the Pistons, Raptors (twice), Hornets (twice), and Hawks, the year has been something of a mixed bag.
2) Where should Giannis be in the MVP race?
I’m biased, of course, but I do think he has a solid claim to be atop the leaderboard. Consider first his raw stat totals: 28.5 points (on .535/.282/.713 splits), 11.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.0 steals a game. Critically, he’s having a career year as a playmaker with point guard Jrue Holiday in and out of the lineup with injuries and Covid concerns, and he’s had to step up to fill a huge gap in our big man rotation once Brook Lopez became a regular fixture on the injury list after the season opener. Giannis has always been the dynamo around which the Bucks have flourished on both ends of the floor – when asked to take it up yet another notch to cover for holes in the rotation, he answered the bell. His winning a third MVP trophy will hinge on how high a seed Milwaukee can grab as his play has done the talking.
3) How is former Grizzly Grayson Allen performing in Milwaukee?
He’s doing about as well as could be expected for a guy who came in and got paid essentially sight unseen! His role on offense is, to oversimplify, that of a guy who shoots threes and occasionally attacks the basket. His 3Par sits at a career-high 69.9% and he’s hitting 39.3% of his shots from distance (on 6.8 attempts a game, also a career-high). He’ll surprise defenders by taking advantage of the collective gravity of his fellow starters and take the ball directly to the hoop, and I’ve been mildly impressed by his willingness to force contact – juxtaposed to the guy he most directly replaced in the lineup Donte DiVincenzo, Grayson is like a running back against paint defenders. Allen’s own defense is solid, though he isn’t as adept at navigating screens to maintain pressure on a ball handler like some of his teammates, but he’s rarely so out of position as to make a recovery impossible.
4) With Brook Lopez out, is Giannis at the 5 the move going forward?
I’m not sure it is the right move going forward outside of select minutes or select lineups. If you watch the Bucks, what they’ve done in Brook’s absence is utilize Bobby Portis as our “perpetual small-ball five” while doing their best to keep Giannis in his best-suited role as a help defender. This maximizes Giannis’s effectiveness while allowing Portis and the rest of the lineup to work on more aggressive defenses targeting the point of attack (i.e. pick & roll attempts) or seeing if they can’t make zone work for long stretches. Giannis is able to overpower pretty much any individual in the NBA, but even he will show some wear and tear if asked to deal with the opponent’s physically largest player on both ends; ergo, a traditional big man 5 in some form remains a must to balance Milwaukee’s possible approaches.
5) What are your outsider thoughts on the Grizzlies?
I don’t follow the league widely these days, but I can’t help but feel a spiritual fan kinship between Bucks fans and Grizzlies fans. There is the obvious Taylor Jenkins connection, yet beyond that lies a genuine hope that Memphis is following in the small-market footsteps of the Bucks to sustained high-level excellence. You have the young superstar in Ja Morant whose going fully to the hilt for Memphis, Tennessee warms my heart. You have a young roster whose young core looks to be putting it together after building cohesion for a few seasons. You have a passionate fanbase with a transcendent connection to the heart and soul of the team. And you had Sam Merrill. All that’s to say, Memphis is part of the list of teams helping carry the hopes and dreams of small-market fans everywhere. You should be loud and proud about that fact.