MILWAUKEE — The ascension of Giannis Antetokounmpo to NBA superstardom, the maturation of Eric Bledsoe into a two-way star, the emergence of Khris Middleton as a consistent force, the prescient acquisition of Brook Lopez and the deft touch of first-year coach Mike Budenholzer have defined the Milwaukee Bucks’ best season in almost 40 years.
There is, however, one more significant reason the Bucks steamrolled the opposition during the regular season and suffocated the Detroit Pistons through the first two games of their playoff series.
The Bucks’ starting lineup is among the NBA’s best, but when everyone is healthy and available, the supporting cast assembled by general manager Jon Horst is the deepest and one of the most effective groups in the league. Plus, and this is no accident, it fits perfectly with the offense Budenholzer has built around Antetokounmpo’s unique abilities because everyone who comes off the bench can shoot the 3-point shot and therefore space the floor.
The bench was a major contributor in Milwaukee’s victories over Detroit in the first two games of their playoff series. Led by guard George Hill’s 16 points, the bench scored 43 in Game 1. Swingman Pat Connaughton scored 18 of Milwaukee’s 27 bench points in Game 2.
That’s the way it has been for the Bucks all season. Other than Nikola Mirotic, an in-season trade acquisition who appeared in 14 games before breaking his thumb and is playing himself back into shape during the playoffs, none of the Bucks reserves averaged even 7.0 points per game. In almost every game, however, one or two bench players have stepped up to help. And seldom has it been the same guy from game to game.
“One of the really cool and unique things about this team has been the amount of guys that have had a major impact throughout the course of the season,” Connaughton said. “We have a lot of depth that I think sometimes the league overlooks. I think that’s something that we want to make sure as teammates that we’re building each other up because at any given time, we’re going to need guys to produce. At the end of the day, as long as we’re winning ballgames, that’s all I or anybody on the team cares about.”
The best thing about the Bucks’ bench is it’s not as good as it will be in a week or two. When guard Malcolm Brogdon rejoins the starting lineup after returning from his plantar fascia tear (presumably during the Bucks’ second-round playoff series), it will push swingman Sterling Brown back down to the second unit. Also, guard Tony Snell is expected to return from an ankle injury this weekend. Even center Pau Gasol, a big-man insurance policy who injured his ankle after only three games with the Bucks, is slated to return at some point during the playoffs.
If the starting unit is intact, it would give Budenholzer bench options that include Hill, Brown, Connaughton and Snell on the wing and Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson at power forward. Having Gasol available would make it an eight-man bench, one that could add shooting, defense, athleticism, size, experience — whatever Budenholzer needs at any given time.
“I think the bench is in a really good rhythm,” Budenholzer said. “They’re all getting extra minutes (with Brogdon out), so, in some ways, they may be playing even better than if we get healthy and then all of a sudden you have to make decisions with who plays and who doesn’t. It’s not automatic that things get better, but we’ll certainly be excited when Malcolm and Tony are back and having Niko back (in midseason form).”
In the NBA, most coaches shorten their bench for the playoffs and give their starters more minutes. The way the Bucks’ bench is playing, Budenholzer might be able to keep his starters’ minutes down in the early stages of the playoffs, which could be beneficial down the road. Antetokounmpo has already shown signs that the physical nature of the playoffs can wear him down, so help off the bench will be needed.
As Budenholzer said, his biggest problem might be finding enough minutes for everyone once Brogdon returns. Gasol won’t return for awhile and Wilson almost certainly will move toward the end of the bench, but that will still leave Budenholzer with 11 players to fit into what likely will be a nine-man rotation.
“I think the bench has been a huge thing for us all year,” Budenholzer said. “Obviously, our starters have been great. But it feels like there’s not a drop-off when (the reserves) come in, especially defensively. I think George Hill (has been important) the way he’s played down the stretch, the last week or 10 days of the regular season, and the defensive identity that he embraces. And now he’s getting more aggressive offensively. I think George has got that second group in a great place.”
Especially since the outside shooting will only get better. Brogdon and Snell are statistically the best 3-point shooters on the team and Mirotic, who looked rusty the first two games, has been a good-shooting big man throughout his career. When those three get heated up and Budenholzer needs shooters, he’ll have plenty from which to choose.
“With the ability of Giannis to get to the basket and collapse the defense and force shifts and helps and rotations, the more shooting we put around him, the more variety of shooters, smaller guys, bigger guys, (the better),” Budenholzer said. “When you have a great player like Giannis, you can’t surround him with enough shooting. The more we add to it ... it just creates more space for us.”
The Bucks bench grew when the team added Hill, Mirotic and Gasol during the season. Once it gets whole, it could make a big difference in how far the Bucks go in the playoffs.