After Jabari Parker went down with the second ACL tear of his career, even the biggest optimists in Milwaukee would say that the playoffs were a long shot. Parker was clearly the second best player on the team, behind All-Star Giannis Antentokounmpo, and without him, the likelihood that they could make up ground on the playoff field seemed slim. A little more than a month later, and the Bucks are in the midst of a six-game winning streak that has them surging toward potentially the sixth seed in the East. They currently hold the eighth seed and sit just a game and a half behind Indiana for the six spot.
What has led to this unexpected turnaround? One major key has been the improved play of center Greg Monroe. Parker’s injury has allowed for Monroe to become more a feature element offensively, and the big man from Georgetown has taken full advantage. He has developed chemistry with Giannis as well as potential rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon. The three of them have formed the Bucks most potent three-man combination, outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor, per Basketball Reference. Monroe’s ability to adapt and become an effective bench scorer has given the Bucks’ second unit a much needed shot in the arm. That, coupled with Michael Beasley’s career revival, has provided stability off the bench. Beasley is shooting a career best 42.1% from deep and 54.4% from the floor overall. Beasley has long been considered a problematic player whose attitude and poor shot selection made him more headache than asset, despite his obvious talent. This season, he has found a groove, scoring in bunches when needed while not taking away from young stars like Giannis and Jabari.
The other big boost has come from Khris Middleton’s return from injury. While he is not quite the player he was toward the end of last season, he is knocking down 46.2% of his triples on three attempts per game. For a team relatively bereft of shooting, that kind of bump is monumental in opening up the floor. Teams cannot simply back in the paint and slam down driving lanes for Brogdon and Giannis. Middleton has struggled to find his pre-injury defensive form, posting a 109 defensive rating, but his net rating is +5.0 per 100 possessions, which shows just how desperately the Bucks needed his shooting threat.
Before you start picking out your 2017 playoff gear, it is worth noting that the Bucks have feasted on a relatively soft schedule of late and are coming up to a very rough stretch of games. They sit just a game ahead of Miami for the eighth seed and have a brutal schedule ahead. They have matchups against Golden State, Boston, L.A. (Clippers), Dallas, and Oklahoma City in their final 17 games, a gauntlet that will be difficult to navigate. Fortunately for the Bucks, they have the right mix of veteran production and youthful contribution to survive it. It also helps that Indiana and Detroit have been wildly inconsistent for much of season. Oh, and they still have this guy.