NBA

Don’t look now, but the 9-1 Bucks’ hot start is real

The Milwaukee Bucks have started the season 9-1, matching the best start in franchise history.

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is off to one of the best starts of his career, and the Bucks have the No. 1 defense in the NBA and have assembled a roster of players who know how to complement their star — retaining 14 of 17 players from last year’s team, the highest retention rate in the league.

“Mostly, I think it’s having the same guys back, guys really being in similar roles that they were in last year,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis told ESPN. “Guys knowing what’s expected to win, knowing our formula and just being familiar with it.”

“We already know each other’s games and it just flows really well right now.”

The last team to rattle off nine straight victories to start the season was the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who went on to set the NBA record with 73 regular-season wins. Like those Warriors, these Bucks brought back all the essential pieces of their championship core, but Golden State was fueled by the confidence of winning a championship the year prior. Milwaukee has come back motivated by failure after losing in the second round of the playoffs against the Boston Celtics.

“It felt like our mission isn’t over,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “I feel like we’ve come in locked in.”

So far, Milwaukee has benefited from a favorable early season schedule — seven of their first 10 games have been at home, and their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .368 (32-55), the softest schedule in the NBA this season.

But with nine wins already under their belt, the Bucks look poised to contend for a second championship in three seasons thanks to Antetokounmpo’s dominant start and a top-ranked defense. Milwaukee also has help with the return of key players as its schedule gets more difficult. Here’s a look at three key reasons to take Milwaukee’s hot start seriously:

Antetokounmpo is staging another MVP campaign

On the night the Bucks matched a franchise record with their seventh straight win to start the season, Antetokounmpo tied a career high with his sixth straight 30-point game. But as he sat at his postgame news conference, rather than celebrate the milestone, he recalled the last time the team started the season this hot.

The Bucks opened the 2018-19 season 7-0 en route to 60 wins and Antetokounmpo’s first MVP award. Milwaukee had won 44 games the year prior, so it was Antetokounmpo’s first taste of winning at such a high level.

Antetokounmpo said, “2018 felt different. This year it’s almost like, ‘OK, we’re just doing our job. Just going out there and competing. Doing our job and we’re winning basketball games.’ There’s a bigger goal here that we have in mind.”

Despite the hot start in 2018-19, the Bucks didn’t win the title that season, falling to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals by losing four straight games after taking a 2-0 series lead. So, Antetokounmpo is taking this team’s early winning streak in stride, even as he starts the season as dominant as ever.

Through his first nine games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists, the only player to average 30 points and 10 rebounds in the NBA this season. He’s shooting 54% and leads the NBA in total points in the paint while tied for the lead in fast-break points.

Antetokounmpo, who also completed the feat in 2019-20, is the only player in the past 25 seasons to pace the league in both categories.

“I think it just comes with maturity,” Antetokounmpo said. “I know what I can bring to the table. I know there’s going to be good days, going to be bad days. And I’m just trying to go out there and do the best I can. No matter what the result is, I’m OK with it.”

Bucks defense returns to form

Milwaukee is the top team in the NBA in defensive efficiency for the third time in five seasons under coach Mike Budenholzer, holding opponents to 101.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s a return to form after their defense slipped to 14th in defensive efficiency during the 2021-22 regular season, most of which they played without defensive anchor Brook Lopez.

The Bucks are surrendering the fewest points per possession against half-court offenses since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers, according to Second Spectrum, while following through on their preseason promise to cut down the number of 3s they give up. After allowing opponents to take an NBA record 40.6 3-pointers per game last season, the Bucks are limiting teams to 31.6 per game in 2022-23.

“I think they’re one of the most intelligent teams in the league in knowing who and when, where to rotate and who not to,” Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said last week. “Last year, they’d kind of look at you take a lot of open 3s, they’d bet certain guys were not going to make shots, and that obviously burned them in the playoffs with [Celtics forward] Grant Williams.

“But for the most part they do a great job of making the right bets. This year it looks like they’re covering everybody a little bit more honestly in that situation.”

Antetokounmpo and Lopez remain the two anchors of the defense. Per Second Spectrum tracking, Antetokounmpo has held opponents to 38.6% shooting as the contesting defender, which ranks in the top 10 among qualifying players, while Lopez is holding opponents to 40.6% shooting in the paint as the contesting defender, the sixth-lowest rate among qualifying players.

“Both of those guys just swallow up the rim,” Finch added. “Lopez is parked down there pretty much permanently, and Giannis is coming in like a heat-seeking missile.”

Room to improve as the schedule gets tougher

While soaking in an ice bath in the locker room following a Bucks win against the Thunder this past Saturday, the conversation between Portis, Lopez and Jevon Carter focused not on their then-undefeated record but rather how much room the team believes it has to improve.

“We can’t really get on a high right now anyways because we really haven’t done nothing,” Portis told ESPN.

The Bucks are 9-1 despite missing Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton, two of their top six rotation players, and have even won without Antetokounmpo, who sat out Saturday’s victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Milwaukee has the 18th-best offensive rating in the NBA — propped up by Antetokounmpo’s and Holiday’s strong starts to the season — and is shooting just 34.1% from 3. However, players believe both figures will improve as the season progresses, especially once Middleton and Connaughton return to action.

Middleton, a three-time All-Star who averaged 20.1 points per game last season, practiced last week with the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks’ G League affiliate. Milwaukee wants him to participate in a few more practices before he returns to the Bucks for the first time this season after sitting out while recovering from offseason wrist surgery. Budenholzer said over the weekend that Connaughton, who averaged 9.9 points and shot 39.5% from 3 last year (both career highs) and strained his right calf before the start of the 2022-23 season, is getting close to a return and will travel with the Bucks during their three-game road trip this week.

The Bucks are targeting a return for both players at some point in November, which should help as the schedule gets more challenging in the second half of the month. When Holiday, Middleton, Connaughton and Antetokounmpo shared the floor last season, the Bucks outscored their opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats.

After road games against Oklahoma City and San Antonio this week, Milwaukee closes out the rest of the month against Atlanta, Cleveland (two games), Philadelphia, Portland, Chicago, Dallas and New York.

“Right now, [our record] really doesn’t really mean anything,” Portis said. “It’s early in the season, guys are still trying to find their chemistry and find their strides on other teams. We’re still trying to gel as well, but at the same time, we’re off to a good start.”

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