The Milwaukee Bucks might be ready to take a step forward in the Eastern Conference after all.
After beating the New York Knicks 99-92 on Friday night, the Bucks are back to .500 and, more importantly, healthy enough to put together the beginnings of a rotation.
The Bucks lost their first three games, including blowout losses to the Knicks and Toronto Raptors, and found themselves allowing an average of 114.7 points a game. They rebounded with wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, but it was hard to learn much from those two games, since they were against the Nets and 76ers.
Of course, the Knicks aren’t exactly contenders in the Eastern Conference, but holding them to 92 points at Madison Square Garden after allowing 122 at home in the opener was at least a positive trend. After the horrific start to the season, the Bucks have only allowed 91.7 points per game in the last three games.
“I think that now we are playing in some close games, our guys have realized how important it is to get stops,” Jason Kidd said on the FOX Sports Wisconsin postgame show. “We got big stops tonight.”
Milwaukee’s slow start shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, especially with John Henson, Michael Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker limited by injuries, and a starting lineup trying to adjust to having Greg Monroe in the frontcourt instead of Ersan Ilyasova.
They’re also incredibly young. In Friday night’s rematch with the Knicks, their starting lineup averaged just 22 years of age. Former Pistons Monroe (25) and Khris Middleton(24) were the elder statesmen, while Tyler Ennis (21), Parker (20) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (20) joined them.
The key to the game, though, was another 24-year-old. After not playing since straining an Achilles’ tendon on opening night, Henson was forced into early action when Monroe committed two fouls in the first five minutes. He put up 22 points, the fourth-highest total of his four-year career, in just 23 minutes.
“We didn’t want to use John for more than 20 minutes, but he was rolling,” Kidd said. “He changed the game, not just with his defense, which we always expect from him, but on the offensive end as well. He was getting the ball in the paint, finishing and knocking down free throws.”
Henson and Monroe combined for 30 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 46 minutes, and their eight offensive rebounds gave Milwaukee extra possessions. That turned out to be critical, as rookie Kristaps Porzingis was doing the same thing at the other end. He had nine offensive rebounds as part of a 14-point, 13-rebound night.
Milwaukee’s biggest problem at the moment appears to be with the backcourt. Friday, Kidd tried Ennis as the starting point guard, with Jerryd Bayless moving to the second unit to provide some scoring, but it didn’t work. Ennis finished with four points and three assists in 17 minutes, while Bayless and Greivis Vasquez struggled to play together.
Carter-Williams could return as soon as Saturday, which would solve one problem, but Kidd is still going to have to find a backcourt rotation that works for Bayless, Vasquez and Ennis.
There’s also the issue of Parker’s playing time. He’s still working his way into shape after last season’s knee injury, and he only played 17 minutes against the Knicks. It’s not clear if he’ll play at all Saturday against Brooklyn, but Kidd liked what he saw on Friday.
“I thought he played a great game,” Kidd said. “He looked smoother than he did on Wednesday, and he didn’t look as anxious as he did in his first game. We got him up to 17 minutes tonight, and we’ll keep building from there.”
Have the Bucks learned much about themselves in the first six games? Probably not. They aren’t as bad as they looked while starting the season shorthanded, and a three-game winning streak against Brooklyn, Philadelphia and New York doesn’t mean a lot in the long run.
Kidd, though, has built a roster that has the potential to be spectacular. Monroe and Andre Drummond might both be All Stars this season, now that they aren’t competing for the same spots on the floor, and Parker should blossom if he stays healthy. Middleton gives the lineup a gunner and Antetokounmpo has the physical gifts to turn into a player unlike anyone else in the NBA. That leaves Carter-Williams the room to focus on being a pass-first point guard, rather than a shooter, which should make him much more effective.
Will it work? It’s an experiment, but now is the right time to try something new in the Eastern Conference, because there’s not a whole lot happening on that side of the league. The Bucks should make the postseason, and other than LeBron James, there’s not much to scare you until you run into someone from the Western Conference. If Milwaukee does that, it means they’ve been to the NBA Finals, and that would make the experiment a rousing success.