8:00 PM EST – Line: Bucks -3.5, Over/Under: 243
Two of the East’s hottest teams clash with the Playoffs right around the corner, as the Milwaukee Bucks play host to the surging Washington Wizards, from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Perhaps no team in the National Basketball Association was more adversely effected by COVID-19 than the Wizards (30-35, 10th in Eastern Conference), who are making a late desperate push to return to the postseason after a two-year hiatus. Coming into this campaign, there was plenty of optimism surrounding the franchise, who managed to part ways with longtime Point Guard, John Wall (along with his albatross of a contract), who had missed most of the previous two seasons rehabbing from an Achilles injury, in favor of acquiring (2016-2017 MVP) Russell Westbrook (21.8 PTS, 44.1% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 11.3 REB, 11.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.9 PER), reuniting the prolific All-Star with former Head Coach, Scott Brooks, while pairing him alongside the emerging Bradley Beal (30.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 22.6 PER), who had flourished in the absence of Wall. By most accounts, Washington projected to finished in that second tier of teams in the East, but they were unfortunately ROCKED by the virus, with the team unable to play or even practice together for a two-week period back in the middle of January with a number of players missing extensive time afterward. As a result, the Wiz got off to a shockingly poor start, losing all but six of their first twenty-three games, leading many to believe that they would blow it all up before the Trade Deadline. However, this team would slowly return to health, and would go one to win eight of eleven heading into the All-Star Break in an attempt to secure a position in the Play-In Tournament. Unfortunately, they would struggle mightily following the Break, losing twelve out of fifteen games, leaving many to wonder whether or not the Front Office would truly be sellers at the Deadline. And then something interesting happened: they started winning games again. Brooks has clearly discovered a formula for success, with Westbrook and Beal carrying an all-of-a-sudden prolific offense that has averaged 123.6 points on an efficient 51.2% shooting from the field, including 38.2% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a healthy 27.9 assists in comparison to committing 14.1 turnovers, encompassing a stretch in which they’ve won all but three of their last sixteen games. Any concerns over whether or not they won the Westbrook/Wall deal have been emphatically put rest, with the 32-year old racking up Triple-Double after Triple-Double just as he did under Brooks’ watch in Oklahoma City; Westbrook has averaged 21.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 13.1 assists over the last sixteen games, registering a Triple-Double on a remarkable thirteen occasions during this stretch. Beal, who trails Golden State’s Steph Curry by a mere 0.5 points per game for the lead in scoring at 30.9 points per game, has been a force at the offensive end, logging 29.9 points on an efficient 48.0% shooting overall, including 36.6% from downtown, along with 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 steals during this run that has repositioned the club back into the Playoff Field. With Westbrook just three Triple-Doubles away (178) from tying (Hall of Famer) Oscar Robertson on the all-time list and currently leading the NBA in assists (11.2), the Wizards could become the first team since the 1981-1982 San Antonio Spurs to feature the league leaders in both scoring and assists. If the Postseason were to begin today, the Wizards would occupy the final place in the Play-In Tournament, sitting a comfortable three games ahead of the Toronto Raptors for Tenth in the East, with an opportunity to climb even higher as they trail the Indiana Pacers (who they just MOLLYWHOPPED) by a half-game for Ninth. With that said, it remains to be seen how this group will perform against stronger competition, for much of their recent success can be chalked up to taking advantage of the softer part of their schedule; of their last sixteen opponents, only FIVE have winning records, and their recent victory over the defending NBA Champion, Lakers, came with the likes of LeBron James sidelined due to injury and Anthony Davis still clearly getting back into game shape following a lengthy absence. Don’t tell that to Washington though, for a win is a win is a win, and after missing the Playoffs in each of the past two seasons there is an organizational emphasis on returning to the Postseason for after all, this upcoming Offseason stands to be a rather significant one for all parties involved, as Westbrook turns thirty-three and Brooks’ job hangs in the balance, all the while Beal threatens to become the next young superstar to demand a change of scenery. This team needs to win NOW, folks, otherwise they will in all likelihood look very different when we see them again next season.
“He’s amazing… superhuman at times… Point Guards don’t do what he does. They’re not built that way.”Scott Brooks on the exploits of Russell Westbrook, who posted career-highs in rebounds (21) and assists (24) in logging his 32nd Triple-Double of the season in Washington’s 154-141 victory over Indiana on Monday Night.
When we last saw the Wizards, they continued their torrid run as they absolutely OBLITERATED the Indiana Pacers in a 154-141 shootout from the Nation’s Capital on Monday Night. This one was notable for a variety of reasons, folks, as Washington secured a key victory over a team that they are in direct competition with, and will see them once more during this crucial five-game road trip beginning with tonight’s trek to Milwaukee. With this victory, Brooks’ troops secured the tiebreaker against Indiana, which could come in handy as they continue to climb the proverbial ladder in the Eastern Conference. Of course, this contest was also significant due to the aforementioned Westbrook’s exploits, which at this point should come as no surprise; the former MVP made some history becoming just the third player to post both twenty-plus rebounds and assists in the same game, a record he shares with (Hall of Famer) Wilt Chamberlain, and needless to say, if you ever find your name on a list with the Big Dipper, then you’re living your best life. Westbrook was locked in from the jump, totaling a dozen rebounds and assists in the First Half alone, en route to compiling his thirty-second Triple-Double of the season with fourteen points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field (62.5%), along with twenty-one rebounds and twenty-four assists, both of which stand as career-highs. This was also the highest-scoring game of the season for the Wizards, who featured nine different players scoring in double-figures, with the aforementioned Beal and (Rookie Forward) Rui Hachimura (13.8 PTS, 47.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.5 PER) scoring twenty-six and twenty-seven points respectively, as the former dished out six assists while the latter totaled seven rebounds. The Bench accounted for sixty-six points as well, with Davis Bertans (11.2 PTS, 40.3% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.8 PER) and Daniel Gafford (10.9 PTS, 70.2% FG, 5.9 REB, 0.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.0 BLK, 26.4 PER), who has made quite the impact since arriving as part of a three-team trade with the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics two months ago, combining for twenty-nine points. Washington also scored a season-high NINETY-SIX points in the paint, while outscoring Indiana by a whopping twenty-six points in transition. Anytime someone like Westbrook totals that many assists, you’re bound to enjoy some unselfish basketball, but these guys were truly on another level, dishing out a staggering FIFTY assists on sixty-three field goals, at one point in the Second Quarter assisting on all but one of their seventeen field goals. Looking ahead, this road trip, which features not only another meeting with Indiana, but a date with Toronto, whom they are also in direct competition with, not to mention back-to-back matchups with the Hawks, will likely decide whether or not the Wizards will be rewarded for this late surge, for their destiny appears to be firmly within their hands.
Meanwhile, the Bucks (41-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference) are making a late push for first in the East, pulling within one game in the loss column of the Brooklyn Nets, whom they just earned the tiebreaker over on the strength of two hard-fought victories (more on the latest in a bit). Of course, this is a team that is no stranger to owning home court advantage, for in each of the previous two Playoff Milwaukee entered the postseason as the East’s top overall seed. Unfortunately, they fell short of reaching the Finals on both occasions despite compiling an NBA-best 116-39 record (.748) over that period, which has them operating under a significant deal of pressure in 2020-2021. The East has been very much a three-team race this season, with the Bucks, Nets, and 76ers each jockeying for position within the conference, and with more competition at the top it figures to be a more difficult trek for (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges than in the previous two years. However, there is a train of thought that these deer may just be better equipped for prolonged postseason success than in years past thanks in large part to the continued growth of various members of their rotation and the additions of some significant pieces via the trade market. First and foremost, it all starts with two-time reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.5 PTS, 56.2% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 29.2 PER), who in addition to coming off back-to-back awards also became just the third player in NBA History to pair that said trophy with Defensive Player of the Year honors, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. At the age of twenty-six, the five-time All-Star has shown that he still has room to develop his already considerable skillset, becoming a more flexible playmaker for his teammates with a career-high 5.9 assists, and even extending his range to a degree, shooting 31.4% from beyond the arc, which stands as his highest percentage since he was a rookie back in 2013. In fact, this newfound shooting stroke could prove to be quite the revelation come the Playoffs, particularly given his recent performances against the Nets; Antetokounmpo knocked down 8-of-20 (40.0%) attempts from downtown in these last two games against Brooklyn, matching a season-high (4) in both contests. Needless to say, if the Greek International starts netting those shots with regularity then the league’s highest-scoring offense (119.4) will become even more formidable, which is hard to fathom. This is what the organization wanted to see out of their franchise superstar after signing him to the richest extension in the history of the Association (five years/$218 million), and that in and of itself was only made possible after Giannis saw the Bucks go out and acquire (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.4 PTS, 50.6% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 19.8 PER) in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, receiving a huge upgrade at the Point Guard position, which had become a real liability in the Playoffs of late. Replacing Eric Bledsoe, the 30-year old is nothing short of a venerable floor general who fits Budenholzer’s system far better than his predecessor did, featuring a more confident stroke from the perimeter (39.4%) and greater size and length to hound opposing guards on the defensive end of the hardwood. (Two-time All-Star Forward) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.5% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.3 PER) has continued to grow with better playmaking around him, shooting a stellar 42.5% from beyond the arc, while developing into more of a playmaker in his own right, dishing out a personal best 5.5 assists. The club would go on to add further reinforcements at the Trade Deadline, acquiring (veteran Forward) P.J. Tucker (2.9 PTS, 45.5% FG, 47.8% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 7.3 PER) in an attempt to get tougher and more physical; the 35-year old has long been a 3&D specialist, and has proven to thrive in a set up like the one he has joined in Wisconsin, camping out on the perimeter offensively while getting his hands dirty on the defensive end. He should certainly prove his value once the Bucks get deeper into the Playoffs. With that said, when they do get to that stage of game, they’re going to need to prove that they’re able to create for themselves when they’re perimeter shooting betrays them. This is not a team that gets to the free-throw line very much, averaging just 20.8 attempts per game (25th Overall), and they still have a bit of a habit of clearing out the lane and relying upon Giannis to make something happen. Defensively, they’ve also been gashed by the money ball quite a bit too, though that has been by design as Budenholzer’s tactics flushes the basketball out to the corners where opponents have been all too happy to let it rain; the deer have allowed the third-most attempts (38.8) and the most makes (14.6) from downtown thus far at a rate of 37.7% (24th Overall). Though those tactics have gotten them into trouble at times, they do not give the opposition cheap points from the stripe, for while they don’t spend much time there themselves, only one team commits fewer fouls than the Bucks at a paltry 17.4 personal fouls a night (2nd Overall), parlaying to just 14.6 free-throws (2nd Overall) on 18.6 attempts (1st Overall). And speaking of Budenholzer, rumors out of Milwaukee indicate that the two-time Coach of the Year could be on the hot seat if his troops don’t enjoy a longer postseason run, but as we explained earlier, success in the Regular Season leads to expectations in the Playoffs, and this is a franchise that yearns desperately for the latter having not won a Larry O’Brien trophy since 1971.
“I’m happy we were able to put on a show for our fans and able to build good habits in those games, but that’s all… They don’t mean nothing. Nobody’s going to remember these games when we’re in the playoffs.”Giannis Antetokounmpo tempering the Bucks second straight win over the Nets following Tuesday’s 124-118 victory, as Milwaukee pulled within one game of Brooklyn in the loss column and obtained the tiebreaker to boot.
When we last saw the Bucks, they reminded us all just how potent they can be as they swept this brief two-game series with the Nets, earning a valuable tiebreaker over them in the event that they finish on equal footing in two weeks. Much like the previous two meetings, this 124-118 affair was an tightly-contested one, with the two sides trading blows over the duration of forty-eight minutes. Though they led 66-58 at Halftime, Milwaukee found themselves trailing by as many as six early in the Fourth Quarter, which is where they managed to mount their rally to secure the victory. Indeed, the final stanza is where this contest was decided, with the hosts outscoring the visitors 32-24, shooting a solid 13-of-25 from the field, assisting on all but three of those thirteen field goals, as they put together an 18-1 surge to swing momentum back into their corner. Brooklyn would hang in on the strength of their perimeter shooting (5-of-11 3FG), but as a whole they only netted 8-of-20 attempts overall (40.0%), and they simply couldn’t stop the home side from getting to the rim. Two nights after scoring a season-high forty-nine points on 21-of-36 shooting (58.3%), Antetokounmpo overcame some early foul trouble to total thirty-six points on a much more difficult 11-of-30 shooting (36.7%), but nonetheless made his mark from the charity stripe with 10-of-12 free-throws (83.3%), while also logging twelve rebounds and four assists. The aforementioned Middleton and Holiday accounted for twenty-three points apiece, with the latter catching fire from beyond the arc on 4-of-6 shooting (66.7%) along with ten assists and an absolutely CLUTCH steal in the final minute of play. (Young Forward) Donte DiVincenzo (10.0 PTS, 41.1% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 12.4 PER) put in yeomen’s work on the boards, leading the team with a career-high fifteen rebounds, including six of the offensive variety. And then there was Bryn Forbes (10.0 PTS, 46.6% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST,12.6 PER), who after dropping a dozen points off the bench on Sunday, came right back and finished with fourteen points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%) in just under twenty-seven minutes of action. For the second straight meeting, the Bucks pummeled the Nets in the paint, besting them 44-30 in that area of the court after doing so 48-32 two days beforehand. Now armed with the tiebreakers over both Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Milwaukee should be happy to see that the rest of the schedule is far from arduous, with all but three of their final seven games at Fiserv Forum, and the Miami Heat, who eliminated them in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, their lone opponent with a winning record.