With just seven games left in the regular season, the Bucks are looking to make a final push into the playoffs.
After an impressive win over the Boston Celtics, the Bucks remained tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the 5th spot in the East. While that may seem convincing, the Bucks are just 3.5 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls, who are currently in the ninth spot and out of playoff contention, and only two games ahead of the Miami Heat for the eight spot.
Four of the Bucks’ seven games remaining are against teams over .500, which another matchup against the top seeded Boston Celtics, meaning the Bucks playoff chances are anything but solidified at this point.
Assuming the Bucks do make the playoffs, they could place anywhere from the 5th seed to the 8th seed, meaning there are four possible teams they could match up against in the first round.
The Bucks have been seen as a dark horse candidate in the playoffs to possibly take down one of the top teams in the East due to their length and athletic abilities. In addition, Milwaukee is one of the hottest teams in the league headed into the stretch, as they have won 13 of their last 16 games, including wins over playoff-ready teams like the Clippers and the Celtics.
Milwaukee will be trying to win their first playoff series since the days of Ray Allen in the 2000-2001 season. Based on their performances during the season and each teams’ specific weaknesses, check out who the Bucks would prefer to play in the first round, and what teams they hope to avoid.
1. Washington Wizards: 45-28, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Washington may have had one of the biggest turnarounds in the NBA this season, but after starting off the year 2-8 and not finding their way into the playoff conversation until January, the Wizards have secured their spot at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Despite this, they are the Bucks’ most favorable matchup, mainly due to Milwaukee’s ability to compete with them during the regular season. Washington may have won the season series 3-1, but Milwaukee didn’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo in one of those games, and Khris Middleton was still injured in all four of those games.
Like Milwaukee, Washington likes to get up and down the court, as both teams are top eight in the league in transition points per game. Both team have long athletic players that make it extremely difficult to get a good shot off; however, Milwaukee gives up about 2.5 less points per game, and has improved drastically on the defensive end since Khris Middleton has returned. Both Washington and Milwaukee score just 25 percent of their points from the three point line, which is tied for 22nd in the league. In short, these two teams have a lot in common, which means that this series could come down to defensive stops and the play of star players in crunch time.
John Wall’s statistics have been off the charts this season, as he has 48 double doubles due to his 10.8 assists per game average. However, against Milwaukee, Wall has averaged just 19 points per game, which is four short of his season average. Washington may have players like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter who can step up and hit big shots, but none of these players could single-handedly dominate a series if the Bucks were able to slow down John Wall.
In Milwaukee’s win over Washington this season, Wall was held to just 18 points, and no other player for the Wizards was able to score over 20 points to make up for the scoring absence. To add to this, Milwaukee scored over 100 points in all four games against the Wizards, meaning they had no problems scoring it was simply their lack of defense.
In the Bucks last 16 games, they have held opponents to 100 points or less in ten times, while Washington has only scored under 100 points three times in the last two and a half months.
If Milwaukee’s improved defense over the past month stays consistent into the playoffs, the run-and-gun Wizards team could be in trouble.
2. Boston Celtics: 48-27, T-1st in Eastern Conference
While Boston may be the top team in the East at this point, Wednesday’s game proved that the Bucks could not only win against the Celtics, but do it on Boston’s home court.
Khris Middelton’s presence and Malcolm Brogdon’s steady improvement seemed to be the biggest factors in the win, in a game where Giannis shot under 50 percent, Snell and Teletovic combined for 3/12 from three, and the Bucks gave up 15 offensive rebounds.
It goes to show that Milwaukee’s defensive prowess can win them games even when they fail to hit the three ball, as they held Boston to just 39.4% from the field. Odds are that Boston will not shoot that poorly every game, but Milwaukee will also likely get more production from Giannis and better three point shooting from their go-to guys.
Both games this year have come down to the wire, as the first matchup in January was determined in OT.
One aspect that Boston has figured out about the Bucks is how to slow down Giannis. In the two games he has averaged just 21.5 points per game, which is a few under his season average. For Milwaukee to stand a chance against Boston in a series, other players will need to step up as they did Wednesday night.
Keep an eye out for the Bucks regular season finale against Boston, as that game could play a huge role in playoff seeding.
3. Toronto Raptors: 45-30, 4th in Eastern Conference
Milwaukee has struggled against the duo of DeMar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry in past years. The Bucks have only won two games in the past four years against the Raptors, and one of those games was this season, when Toronto was missing Kyle Lowry.
Lowry has missed over a month of play with an injured right wrist, but is expected to return come playoff time. The Raptors clearly aren’t the same team without their All-Star point guard, but with additions like Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Toronto was recently able to win six games in a row, and has a chance to be even better when Lowry returns.
The biggest issue Milwaukee had with Toronto throughout the season was the ability to hang with them for four quarters. Kyle Lowry is the 3rd in the league in fourth quarter scoring, and DeRozan is 7th in the league in free throw attempts, which were both factors that crushed the Bucks chances.
In the three Raptors wins, Lowry and DeRozan combined to shoot 39/44 from the free throw line, and keep in mind that DeRozan missed one game in that stretch.
On the flip side, in Milwaukee’s win, DeRozan was just 1-1 from the line with eleven points on the night. Limiting the Raptors free throw attempts would be vital for the Bucks to stay in the series.
Toronto also creates matchup problems for Milwaukee, as the Bucks struggle to guard dominant point guards (like Lowry), and the Raptors have some of the top perimeter defenders in the league in P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll, making it difficult for players like Middleton and Giannis to score.
Milwaukee has not won a game against Kyle Lowry in over two years, and they would like to avoid playing him for as long as possible in the upcoming playoffs.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: 47-26, T-1st in Eastern Conference
Even though the Cavs are currently on a cold stretch, no team in the league would want to face LeBron James in the first round.
While the Bucks have not faced the Cavs with Khris Middleton yet this year, it is unlikely that he could make enough of an impact for the Bucks to win four out of seven games against LeBron.
Milwaukee simply doesn’t have an answer for the Cavs’ ability to drive and kick to the open three point shooter, especially now that the Cavs have shooter like J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver in their full time lineup. The Cavs shot over 35 percent from the three point line in all four outings this season, including a game where they shot 55 percent from deep.
Cleveland also proved that it could take Giannis completely out of the game, as he scored just nine points in 42 minutes in one of the Bucks losses to the defending champs. To put that in perspective, Giannis has scored in single figures just four times this year, and the Bucks lost three of those four games.
The Cavaliers in the playoffs as compared to the regular season are also a much scarier team, as LeBron’s statistics improve in every category, especially defensively. Cleveland also has enough depth to put up with any lineup the Bucks can throw at them, which makes it difficult enough to win one game, but to try to win four games against Cleveland is borderline impossible for a team with such little playoff experience.
While it likely won’t happen this year, the Bucks have the pieces to dethrone the King a few years down the road.