The Bucks are cruising to one of the most dominant seasons in recent NBA history, but the biggest test is 2 months away
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- The Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to win 70 games and are having one of the best seasons in NBA history.
- The Bucks have consistently passed big tests this season by convincingly beating other contenders.
- The Bucks haven't garnered as much buzz as a team this dominant usually would, in part because they'll have to prove themselves in the postseason.
- Even with 70 wins in sight, the rest of their regular season feels unimportant compared to how they'll perform in the playoffs.
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For some NBA teams, the stretch run of the regular season is a race to the playoffs or to lock up specific playoff seeds. For the Milwaukee Bucks, it now looks like a waiting game.
The Bucks are in the midst of one of the best regular seasons the NBA has ever seen. At 50-8, they're on pace to win 70 games, a number only two teams have ever reached. That record alone is impressive enough, but since beginning the season 6-3, they've gone 44-5, a .897 winning percentage, or 73-win pace. They hold an eight-game lead for first place in the Eastern Conference.
They have also handled just about every test thrown at them. The latest came on Tuesday, with a 108-97 win over the second-seeded Toronto Raptors. The Bucks were on the road for the second night of a back-to-back, having flown from Washington DC after a double-overtime win over the Wizards to Toronto.
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Two things seem to be happening simultaneously with these Bucks. There is intrigue about how the Bucks will handle each test this season. The Bucks are a relatively new contender. Many thought the Bucks would be a middling playoff contender last season; instead, they won 60 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, they're even better but don't have the playoff track record to back up their legitimacy.
So far, the Bucks have shown us they are real contenders.
- They have wins against five of the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference, except for the Miami Heat. They lost to the Heat on October 26, the second game of the season, and haven't played them since.
- After losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in a high-profile game on Christmas, the Bucks have beaten them twice by a combined 32 points.
- They beat the LA Clippers twice, one win by 28 points.
- They beat the Los Angeles Lakers by seven in December. Their next game is on March 6.
The Bucks haven't beaten pseudo-contenders like the Heat or Denver Nuggets, and they haven't faced the Houston Rockets since the first game of the season. But none of those games figure to be statement wins for Milwaukee.
What is also happening is that the larger sports world has seemingly overlooked the Bucks' success this season. The hype is nowhere near the levels of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, despite similar records and an MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo having a similarly dominant season as Stephen Curry did that year.
The real test awaits in April
Perhaps one reason the Bucks success hasn't been a major topic is the NBA world wants to see how they perform in April. Questions remain about how the Bucks will fair in the playoffs, even if they have looked the part of a contender so far.
Antetokounmpo has shown moderate improvement in his three-point range and looked increasingly comfortable in the midrange this season. But in last year's playoffs, the Raptors successfully walled off the paint, making Antetokounmpo navigate through tangles of arms and bodies any time he ventured inside the three-point arc.
For all of Antetokounmpo's brilliance, he still has to prove that he can carry a team offensively, even when the defense is designed to stop him.
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Starting point guard Eric Bledsoe has melted down in the playoffs the last two years. A lot will be riding on Bledsoe's future with the team if he doesn't reverse what was a poor postseason showing last year.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer will also need to prove his ability to coach in the postseason. Budenholzer, a two-time Coach of the Year winner, has been to the Eastern Conference Finals three times but never advanced to the Finals. It's not his fault that his Atlanta Hawks teams ran into LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers or that the Bucks ran into Kawhi Leonard last season. But some critics believe Budenholzer has struggled with making adjustments in the most intense moments of the postseason.
And, of course, riding on all of this is Antetokounmpo's future with the Bucks. Antetokounmpo is set to become a free agent in 2021. If he doesn't sign an extension this coming offseason, there will be rampant speculation that he will leave the Bucks in 2021. Many believe a championship or, at least, a Finals appearance this year could convince Antetokounmpo to stay in Milwaukee.
The answers to these questions will be revealed in the spring. In the meantime, the Bucks could choose to chase 70 wins or perhaps scale back their starters' minutes to enter the postseason healthy. Either way, we've seen what we need to see from them in the regular season. The playoffs will reveal if Milwaukee is truly as dominant as they have appeared.
Milwaukee winning this spares us two weeks of unbearable Giannis-2021 commentary. Instead we'll just go back to ignoring one of the greatest team seasons in NBA history.- John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) February 26, 2020