The Milwaukee Bucks title defense is off to a shaky start.
A frustrating loss to the Washington Wizards leaves the Bucks 4-6 on the season with losses in five of their last six games with the latest defeat coming on the eve of a visit to the White House to be honored as last season’s title winners.
Battling extraordinary health and injury concerns to start the season, the Bucks are simply trying to keep their head above water until they are able to insert some key bodies back into the rotation.
The loss in Washington is just the first game of a five game trip that includes stops in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Atlanta that will likely leave the Bucks a slightly bigger hole to dig themselves out of.
After blowing out the Brooklyn Nets by 23 points on opening night at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks left the building with rings in hand and it all seemed like business as usual.
Since then, it’s been anything but.
All told, the Bucks projected starting lineup hasn’t played a minute together. If you exclude DiVincenzo given his expected absence, the quartet of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lopez, Holiday and Middleton have played six minutes together in 2021-22.
Injuries to key bench players
It hasn’t been just the starters who have been bitten by the injury bug, with a number of key bench players nursing their way into the season.
Bobby Portis strained a hamstring in the team’s open scrimmage, forcing him to miss the entire preseason. Portis has now made five appearances under careful minute management, with the game in Washington his first start of the season where he tallied 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Semi Ojeleye and Rodney Hood have been in and out of the lineup with calf and foot injuries respectively.
Impact on lineups
The swelling injury report has forced Mike Budenholzer into some lineups he likely never considered in the offseason, with two-way players Justin Robinson and Sandro Mamukelashvili (44 minutes) seeing more time on the floor together than Middleton and Holiday (36 minutes).
Milwaukee’s ball of energy off the bench, Thanasis Antetokounmpo has doubled his NBA starts tally from five to 10 already this season, with many of those coming as the listed center (if it wasn’t Pat Connaughton).
The Lopez impact
Based on early season play, the Bucks aren’t even a middle of the pack team.
Ranked 17th on offense (106.5 offensive rating) and 19th on defense (107.5 defensive rating), the Bucks are leaking points in unfamaliar places and a lot of it comes back to the absence of Lopez.
Milwaukee missing the man in the middle (via NBA.com)
Without Lopez, the Bucks are forced to play Antetokounmpo at the five more than ever, with Cleaning the Glass noting the percentage of his minutes at center spiking from 12 percent last season to 75 percent so far this season.
The Milwaukee defense is then suffering from the double impact of losing Lopez, one of the best rim protectors in the league, but it also removes Antetokounmpo as the leagues most fearsome help defender in the league.
The trickle down impact of the loss of Lopez has seen opposition teams increase their frequency of shots taken at the rim. The Bucks have ranked in the top two league wide for those shots in the first three seasons of the Budenholzer era. So far in 2021-22 they rank 14th, with the number jumping from 27.8 to 31.4 thus far – the highest number since Jason Kidd’s last season in charge when they ranked dead last in the catagory.
Is it time to panic?
It’s not time to panic….yet.
Given the Bucks cryptic messaging around Lopez, a timeline is difficult to assess but it seems fair to assume he still faces weeks rather than days on the sideline given the concession by Budenholzer that he has not yet returned to basketball activities.
Holiday has been rusty to start but should work his way back, leaving Middleton’s covid recovery and the returning DiVincenzo as the remaining question marks.
The Bucks have 30 games until the turn of the New Year which will bring us close to the halfway mark of the season. There’s no doubt the Bucks would set their goals higher than a .500 record at that point, but given the start and given the man management they may have to undertake with Giannis in particular who has played through his own knee issues, it may be the realistic target.
Speaking of Antetokounmpo, he’s been nothing short of spectacular. Averaging 27.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists and over a steal and block a game, his usual MVP level play can be found on a nightly basis. Not that he needs to prove his ability to play through injury after last postseason, you get the feeling the Milwaukee training stuff would like to lighten the load sooner rather than later.
In January and February the Bucks play 16 out of 26 games at Fiserv Forum on the road to the All-Star break, setting them up nicely to launch into the run to the postseason.
They just have to try and survive until that point.
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