7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -7, Over/Under: 228
MVP favorites clash in Cream City as the shorthanded Dallas Mavericks look to keep the ball rolling as they head to Milwaukee to face the surging Bucks from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After returning to the Playoffs following a three-year absence, the franchise’s longest since the turn of the century, much is expected of the young Mavericks (6-4, 5th in Western Conference), who look to take the next step in their development into a title contender. Of course, as has been the case for many teams thus far the shortest Offseason in the history of the National Basketball Association led to a slow start for Rick Carlisle’s charges, who dropped four of their first six games of the schedule, losing by an average margin of 14.0 points in that quartet of defeats. However, things have clearly changed for Dallas, who have since strung together four consecutive victories, managing to do so during an arduous period in which the rotation has been ravaged by COVID-19; their matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday was called off due to not having the minimum number of players required to compete, with as many as eight being flagged for virus/contact protocols. Coming into tonight’s meeting with the Bucks, the Mavs will be without five of their number, including (Forwards) Max Kleber (7.4 PTS, 43.9% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 BLK, 13.5 PER) and Dorian Finney-Smith (9.3 PTS, 41.5% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 11.7 PER),along with (Guards) Jalen Brunson (11.1 PTS, 49.2% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 18.0 PER) and Josh Richardson (13.8 PTS, 41.1% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.3 ER), as well as (Center) Dwight Powell (5.0 PTS, 46.7% FG, 3.6 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 11.9 PER), who are all subject to contact tracing. To their credit, this is a team that has persevered nonetheless during this successful stretch, averaging 113.3 points per game on 46.5% shooting from the field, including a torrid 40.6% from beyond the arc, while their Defense has been the best it’s been in this season, relinquishing just 102.0 points per contest on 41.0% shooting overall and 27.5% from downtown, all the while owning a major advantage on the glass (Plus-3.8 REB). To the surprise of absolutely nobody, (All-Star Guard) Luka Doncic (27.4 PTS, 46.5% FG, 27.3% 3FG, 9.6 REB, 8.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.0 BLK, 26.3 PER) has been at the center of this run, with the Preseason betting favorite for the league’s Most Valuable Player filling up the stat sheet with averages of 31.3 points on a stellar 50.0% shooting from the floor, including 37.1% from three, along with 12.0 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.8 blocks over the last four outings. the 21-year old Slovenian international was only a single rebound or assist away from posting a triple-double in each of these affairs, scoring a season-high thirty-eight points in a 124-117 victory over the Denver Nuggets just three days after totaling sixteen rebounds in 113-100 win against the Houston Rockets. Fortunately, he won’t have to carry the load for much longer, for in addition to the eventual return of the aforementioned players, Doncic recently welcomed back (Center) Kristaps Porzingis (16.0 PTS, 37.5% FG, 44.4% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 0.0 AST, 2.0 BLK, 16.4 PER), who made his first start of the season in Wednesday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets (more on that outcome shortly). After undergoing Offseason knee surgery, the sweet-shooting seven-footer missed the first eight games of the campaign, only to finally get back on the hardwood where he immediately made his presence felt with sixteen points, four rebounds, and a pair of blocks in just twenty-one minutes of action. Sure, it’s likely going to take some time to get back into proper game shape and find his shooting stroke after knocking down 6-of-16 attempts overall (37.5%), but at 7′-3″ his length is a boon on the defensive end of the court with his shooting prowess (career 35.8% 3FG) further stretching defenses. And speaking of that shooting prowess, the Latvian international drained 4-of-9 from long-range in his return, which must have Carlisle excited as he gets closer to having a complete rotation at his disposal. With that said, Porzingis is currently listed as Day-to-Day with an sore ankle.
“When both of those guys are out there at the same time it’s a game changer for us… They are two guys who can play on the inside and space the court on the outside.”Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks Head Coach
When we last saw the Mavericks, they managed to successfully stretch their winning streak to four games, besting the Charlotte Hornets in a 104-93 victory on the road. The visitors set the tone early, racing out to an early 32-16 advantage in the First Quarter and never looked back in an affair that proved their mettle, as they grinded out a win without so many players due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. As a team, Dallas shot just 41.7% from the field, including 15-of-16 from beyond the arc (32.6%), while netting a dismal 9-of-16 from the charity stripe (56.3%). However, they really got after the Hornets on the defensive end, relegating the hosts to a miserable night from the field, shooting 38.0% overall, including 10-of-38 from downtown (26.3%), and 7-of-14 from the free-throw line (50.0%). In the end, the biggest difference was the money ball, with Carlisle’s troops outscoring their opponent by twenty-one points in that regard, with the dynamic duo of Doncic and Porzingis outscoring them by themselves, as they combined for 9-of-18 from three (50.0%) in their first game together of the season. Once again, Doncic littered the box score with thirty-four points, thirteen rebounds nine assists, a pair of steals, and a season-high four blocks, while Porzingis added sixteen in his 2020-2021 debut. (Guard) Tim Hardaway (18.4 PTS, 45.7% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.3 AST, 17.2 PER) chipped in with eighteen points on 7-of-16 shooting (43.8%), while (Center) Willie Cauley-Stein (5.4 PTS, 62.5% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 15.7 PER) logged fourteen rebounds and three blocks. The victory was significant for Carlisle, for it was the 800th of his career; the 61-year old is one of the longest-tenured Head Coaches in the league, enjoying his thirteenth season with the Mavs (519-452, .535) following stints with the Detroit Pistons (2001-2003) and Indiana Pacers (2004-2007), leading the franchise to eight Postseason appearances including the 2011 NBA Finals where they won their only Larry O’Brien trophy.
Meanwhile, the Bucks (8-4, 3rd in Eastern Conference) have also rallied back from a slow start to the campaign, winning five of their last six contests, including each of their last three outings. One of the posterchildren for the inconsistencies of this unique 2020-2021 season, Milwaukee has seen some incredible highs and lows in the early stages of the schedule, for when they’ve been good they’ve been REALLY good, and when they’ve been bad, they’ve been VERY disappointing; in their eight wins they’ve exploded for 124.3 points on 51.9% shooting en route to hammering the opposition by an average margin of 22.8 points, though in their four defeats they’ve scored 114.3 points on 44.4% shooting, while losing by a margin of 11.2 points. So what gives for the deer, you ask? Well, even after finishing with the best record in the Association in each of the last two seasons, this is a team that is trying to find themselves, for they did undergo some significant changes during the Offseason. They parted ways with the likes of (Guards) Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Wesley Matthews, along with (Center) Robin Lopez, while acquiring the services of (Guards) D.J. Augustin (6.0 PTS, 35.7% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 1.3 REB, 3.0 AST, 10.6 PER) and Bryn Forbes (8.2 PTS, 46.8% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 1.0 REB, 9.3 PER), and (Forwards) Torrey Craig and Bobby Portis (11.8 PTS, 56.2% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.2 PER). However, the biggest addition was (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (15.2 PTS, 49.0% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 2.2 STL, 19.6 PER), who figures to be a far better fit for (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s scheme, which has always emphasized spacing and shooting on the offensive end of the court. In comparison to his predecessor (Bledsoe), the 30-year old is a much better shooter from the perimeter (career 35.5% 3FG), a solid playmaker (career 6.4 assists), and as a two-time All-Defensive Team selection ensures that nothing is lost on that particular end of the floor. Already he is proving his value within this system, shooting 38.9% from beyond the arc, which is his highest figure since the 2013-2014 season. It will be interesting to see how these pieces continue to fit together as the campaign progresses, as Craig continues to rehab from a broken nose having played just thirteen minutes thus far. Of course, bolstering the supporting cast around (All-NBA Forward) Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.2 PTS, 52.0% FG, 29.6% 3FG, 10.1 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.2 BLK, 26.9 PER) continues to be the mandate for Budenholzer and (General Manager) Jon Horst, particularly after the two-time MVP signed the richest contract in NBA history, putting pen to paper on a mammoth five-year/$228 million supermax extension. Make no mistake, the pressure is on for the Greek international to lead the Bucks to the promised land; Milwaukee amassed an NBA-best 116-39 (.748) record in the previous two seasons only to see their run through the Playoffs end prematurely on both occasions, losing four-straight games to the eventual champion, Toronto Raptors, after winning the first two chapters of the 2019 Eastern Cofnerence Finals, and getting thoroughly vexed in five games against the Miami Heat in the 2020 Eastern Semifinals last September. This is a franchise that hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since 1974 and hasn’t hoisted a Larry O’Brien trophy since 1971, and now that they have the league’s most dominant player in house for the foreseeable future, the expectation to deliver has never been more profound.
“We’ve just tried to keep building on shooting and making it a priority… It takes good passing, good ball movement, and then guys have to knock down shots.”Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach
When we last saw the Bucks, they managed to extend their winning streak to three games as they bested a familiar opponent, fellow Central Division resident Detroit Pistons, 110-101. Wednesday’s affair marked the third time that these teams met in a two-week span, with Milwaukee beating them by a combined twenty points in the previous home-and-home set. Unfortunately for the Pistons, though this latest meeting was indeed closer the outcome remained the same, as the visitors raced out to a commanding 27-13 lead in the First Quarter, which was an advantage that they would not relinquish. Budenholzer’s troops shot a solid 48.2% from the field, including a stellar 19-of-43 from beyond the arc (44.2%), which really proved to be the difference, where the outscored their counterpart by fifteen points. Antetokounmpo registered a modest triple-double consisting of twenty-two points, ten rebounds, and ten assists, while the aforementioned Holiday continued to impress in his new digs, with twenty-one points on an efficient 8-of-13 shooting from the floor (61.5%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), along with six rebounds, five assists, three steals, and a block. (All-Star Forward) Khris Middleton (21.6 PTS, 54.4% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 5.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 23.3 PER) added another dozen points on 5-of-12 shooting (41.7%) and six assists, while Portis and Forbes contributed off the bench with a combined twenty-four points on 10-of-17 shooting (58.8%). It was a fairly modest showing for Middleton, who for all intents and purposes has been enjoying the finest campaign of his career, logging career-highs in a slew of categories including points (21.6), field goal percentage (54.4%), three-point percentage (47.1%), two-point percentage (58.9%), rebounds (6.3), and assists (5.7). Defensively, they once again flexed their muscles against Detroit, relegating them to just 39.1% shooting from the field, including 14-of-35 from the perimeter (40.0%), and sixteen turnovers (which Milwaukee parlayed into twenty-one points), though they did manage to keep this particular affair closer on the strength of a 20-7 advantage in second-chance points.