MILWAUKEE (AP)Giannis Antetokounmpo insists he still isn’t in a rhythm, even as statistics suggest he’s off to perhaps the best start of his career. Khris Middleton still isn’t in uniform as he recovers from offseason wrist surgery.
Yet the Milwaukee Bucks still have played well enough to become the NBA’s last unbeaten team.
The Bucks (6-0) benefited from having a season-high, six-game homestand immediately after opening with a 90-88 triumph at Philadelphia. They close that stretch Wednesday night with the second of two straight games against the Detroit Pistons.
Milwaukee also has capitalized on a defense that has grown stingier with the return of a healthy Brook Lopez.
”Our team is definitely the best defensive team in the NBA,” Lopez said Monday after the Bucks’ 110-108 victory over the Pistons. ”That’s something we can do every night, regardless of how we’re shooting.”
The Bucks lead the NBA in scoring defense (103.8) and field-goal percentage defense (.423). Lopez has a league-high 3.3 blocks per game after recovering from a back injury that required surgery and limited him to 13 regular-season games last year.
That’s enabled the Bucks to remain unbeaten even while ranking just 23rd in field-goal percentage (.451) and 24th in 3-point percentage (.335). Antetokounmpo has said he wants the Bucks to have a suffocating defense as their identity rather than assuming they can beat teams by scoring in bunches every night.
”I’ve been a part of a team like that. The 2019-2020 team, we were a team that scored a lot of points and we beat everybody by 12-13-15 points on average,” Antetokounmpo said last week, referring to a season in which the Bucks posted the NBA’s best regular-season record but lost in the second round of the playoffs.
”But at the end of the day, it comes down to stops, who get the most stops down the stretch, who makes that extra effort, whos’ going to dive for the ball, who’s going to cover for one another, who’s going to rebound the ball better, who’s going to get more 50-50 balls.”
That defense has helped Milwaukee withstand the absences of Middleton and Pat Connaughton, who also hasn’t played yet this season due to a strained right calf.
Of course, it helps to have arguably the world’s best player on your roster.
Antetokounmpo, the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week, scored 151 points in a four-game run that ended Saturday with a 123-115 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks. That’s his highest career point total over a four-game span.
”He’s what the game should be about – the way he plays with intensity, his work ethic,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. ”He’s not about the frills and the fancy stuff. He just gets it done. That’s what’s grown over the years with his game. You could probably trick him a few years ago. You’re not going to trick him anymore.”
Antetokounmpo isn’t satisfied.
The two-time MVP said over the weekend that he still doesn’t have that feeling and rhythm that he usually gets when he’s delivering big-time performances.
”I’m still chasing that feeling,” Antetokounmpo said. ”I want to help my team be great. I want to be as efficient as possible for this team. I want to win games. It doesn’t really matter the numbers – I’m just chasing that feeling, that hunger where things just happen automatic, like when you trust your skills, when you get to the free-throw line you knock down your shots. It’s a feeling. I haven’t had it yet.”
Milwaukee returned its roster virtually intact from last season, and the Bucks’ experience playing together has paid off down the stretch in close wins over Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit.
Jrue Holiday is averaging 29.5 points and 11 assists over his last two games and made a tie-breaking 3-pointer in the final minute Monday. Lopez has 15.3 points per game
But it’s the defense that’s making the biggest difference.
”That’s ultimately what helps you win big games and close out big games – the defensive side of the ball,” forward Bobby Portis said. ”That’s what we’ve really got to keep up. Shots will start to fall, hopefully, one day for us.”
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