Coming off of a tough loss against the currently 7th seeded Oklahoma City Thunder (in a game that may have playoff implications later down the road), the San Antonio Spurs will be in Milwaukee Saturday evening to take on a formidable Bucks team whose fortunes are largely steered by an increasingly unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Gregg Popovich protege in former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer.
For the second season in a row, the Bucks have one of the league’s best teams and are currently sporting the NBA’s best overall record. This is in no small way a result of the transcendent season that Antetokounmpo is currently authoring (he’s carrying a stat-line of 30/13/5.6/1/1), but giving all of the credit to him doesn’t quite do justice to the team effort that Milwaukee has been putting forth on a nightly basis.
The strategic tweaks that Coach Bud put into place in his first season (namely, surrounding Giannis with three-point shooters and not utilizing one of the most uniformly ineffective defensive schemes I’ve seen in years) have come into full bloom this season, and though he is still doing his best impression of a one-man wrecking crew, the Bucks as a team are leading or near the top of the league in a number of categories that only help further express their cohesive and workmanlike style of play.
Currently Milwaukee is 1st in field goal percentage, rebounds per game, net rating, defensive rating, fast break points per game, and are tied for 1st in points per game with the Houston Rockets. Additionally, they are lurking in the top five of a number of other categories, including: blocks per game, three pointers made, offensive rating, points in the paint per game, and a bench squad that is 2nd in net rating.
Simply put, this is the most outgunned the Spurs have been all year. And thanks to a scheduling quirk, San Antonio will be facing the Bucks in consecutive contests with Milwaukee coming to the AT&T Center on Monday night, giving this pair of contests a bit of a playoff series feel. There will be no respite for this San Antonio team if they lose, and especially if they are blown out. The only prescription will be a second dose of Giannis, Bud, and Co.
This isn’t to say the Spurs lack the ability to knock off this Bucks squad, particularly on the heels of a holiday respite, but even one win in the next two contests will likely require a level of concerted play that has been inconsistent at best for most of the season.
San Antonio Spurs (14-19) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (31-5)
January 4, 2020 | 7:30 PM CT
Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)
Spurs Injuries: Dejounte Murray (personal reasons — out)
Bucks Injuries: Wesley Matthews (thigh — day-to-day)
What to watch for:
- San Antonio’s Shot Profile: This is most applicable when it comes to LaMarcus Aldridge, who is now 14-20 from three over the last 5 games. While the strategy of using this threat to move larger defenders out to the perimeter may not work as well on a lengthy Bucks team, it will be important to see if the Spurs stick with it, even if it’s not having the desired effect that it has in the past several contests. This is a critical tactical adjustment that will need to be maintained in order for this team to remain any kind of competitive this season.
- The Greek Freak: While this functions well as a general statement regarding one of the most fascinating NBA players to watch in the last decade or so, this is more in regard to whether or not San Antonio’s still-awkwardly rotating defense will be able to even take a crack at containing the Greek Freak. On the one hand, San Antonio does feature a premier shot blocker in Jakob Poeltl who may be able to deter some of Giannis’ consistently ferocious drives to the rim (though even Rudy Gobert has had some trouble with this in the past), but on the other hand Giannis is no longer a one trick pony. Armed with an effective enough three pointer (33% on the season), and getting better at ball-distribution with every passing season (pun intended), there is no longer any straightforward scheme or solution that will be able to help prevent Giannis’ effectiveness, and the Spurs will be forced to keep close tabs on a perimeter that they have had trouble defending for most of the season. If the Spurs can keep him from running absolutely wild, and keep the rest of the Bucks from burying them in three-balls, they’ll have a good chance in this one. If not, well...it was nice thought anyway.
- Pop vs. Bud: A pupil versus sensei match-up is always good fun, and never less so than when Pop is forced to go head-to-head with one of his most successful disciples. Expect some lineup quirkiness here, as each coach tries to exploit the other’s ever-so-familiar tendencies. Bud has a clear advantage here, but don’t underestimate the possibility of Pop unleashing the still-difficult-to-scheme-for Lonnie Walker IV, particularly on the heels of an excellent performance against Oklahoma City, and with the guard line-up shifting due to Murray’s absence.
This is still a team that has taken down opponents like the Rockets and Clippers, and stretched both the Mavericks and Lakers to their breaking points, but more than perhaps any game thus far, this will be a ostudy in determination and consistency for the Silver and Black. This is as David and Goliath as it will get this season for this group of Spurs, and it’s time to see just how much mettle they’ve got.
For the Bucks fans’ perspective, visit Brew Hoop.
PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.