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Moore: Can the Milwaukee Bucks Prove They’re the NBA’s Best When it Matters?

Moore: Can the Milwaukee Bucks Prove They’re the NBA’s Best When it Matters? article feature image

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34).

  • The Milwaukee Bucks are the undisputed best team in the league headed into Christmas, but does it mean anything?
  • Matt Moore analyzes the Giannis Antetokounmpo and the NBA's most elite squad.

I had a thought last year in January, involving the Milwaukee Bucks: Maybe we’re just overthinking this.

The Bucks had the league’s best record and were tearing through everyone last season. Unlike other super-hot regular season teams, they had both a phenomenal defense and the league MVP.

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These weren’t Mike Budenholzer’s 2015 Hawks without a superstar or the 2018 Rockets (they likely would have won if not for Chris Paul’s injury), who were good-not-great defensively.

We had all these reasons to buy into the Celtics or Sixers, to talk ourselves into the Warriors (who were laboring through a regular season even as they eventually climbed into the No. 1 seed in the West) or some darkhorse team like the Nuggets.

But maybe we were just overthinking it and the Bucks were just better. And then the Raptors happened.

The Bucks wiped out the Raptors in Games 1 and 2, and a series loss for Milwaukee seemed remote. It was all falling into place.

And, forgive me if you follow me on Twitter and have heard this one, but … Fred VanVleet happened. The Bucks won by 40 in the minutes VanVleet was off the floor in that series. They lost by 30 in the minutes FVV, fresh off becoming a first-time father, was raining hellfire on them.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23), Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34).

You will say “Oh, but what about Kawhi Leonard? Kawhi was the real difference!”

The Bucks tied the Raptors in the minutes Antetokounmpo and Leonard shared the floor in that series and won in the minutes in which both superstars were on the floor and FVV was off.

But even still, because the Bucks failed, we did what we do: find reasoning to work backward and ascribe meaning.

The narrative became that the Bucks lost because Antetokounmpo couldn’t shoot, or because their role players weren’t good enough, or because Budenholzer was out-coached.

In reality, with distance, I maintain the same thing I thought at the time. The Bucks were better, the Raptors were simply a team of destiny.

The Raptors were not unlike the 2009 Magic, who upended the best pre-Decision LeBron James team in history behind some (at the time) outlandish 3-point shooting. The only difference was that the Lakers, who Orlando went on to face in the Finals, didn’t suffer series-ending injuries to Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom.

It was just Toronto’s year, and honestly, seeing the fans in Oracle Arena losing their minds in Game 4 was incredible. The Raptors and their fans deserved that title. I’m just not sure it means we should be holding the same skepticism about the Bucks.

The Bucks are currently on pace for the third-best record in NBA history, and have signature wins over the Raptors, Lakers, Clippers, and on and on.

Their only blemishes? Losses to Miami in the Bucks’ home opener, a loss to Boston, and a loss to the red-hot Mavericks without Luka Doncic — a letdown loss if there ever was one.

The Bucks are also on pace to be just the second team in NBA history to lead the league in pace and defensive rating, a combination that seems impossible on the surface.

How do you push pace, get up and down the floor, and still defend like that? The 2015 Warriors were the only other team. The Bucks are absolutely blistering.

Antetokounmpo set a career-high in made 3-pointers against the Lakers and is shooting a completely respectable 34% from deep. If you can’t play back on him, there is no answer. None.

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34).

So … why are we still skeptical?

There are reasons. The loss of Malcolm Brogdon means they’re still short a secondary playmaker, and Eric Bledsoe’s playoff history is straight-up frightening. High 3-point volume teams like the Bucks have a tendency to hit cold streaks that devastate them in ways that teams driven by individual shot makers (Trail Blazers, Clippers, Celtics, etc) don’t worry about as much.

But more than anything it’s just a feeling; teams like the Bucks — feel-good, homegrown teams in small markets — never win titles. Star-studded big-market teams always do. And then those big-market teams take the superstars from teams like the Bucks. That’s just the way of the NBA world.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, for the most part. No one will believe the Bucks can win a title … until they win the title.

But if we’re looking for value? Heading into Christmas, the Bucks are +400, longer odds than the Clippers and Lakers despite having matchup advantages over both teams (along with straight-up wins), a better win profile, and having more experience together as a team, in a weaker conference.

I thought maybe we were overthinking it last year, and Toronto blew that idea to smithereens. But while I understand the limitations of the regular season, Milwaukee absolutely rampaged through the first two rounds of the playoffs, right up until Game 4 of the ECF. (Game 3 was an understandable loss.)

The Bucks keep telling us they’re the best team in the league. I’m not even sure last year that was a lie, but they still didn’t win.

I’m just having a hard time convincing myself the fates are going to conspire against them again.

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