OAKLAND -- They may be the most surprising non-surprise team in the NBA, they’re definitely the most dramatically different team and they’re facing the Warriors at Oracle Arena on Thursday night.
The Milwaukee Bucks, at long last, are onto something.
Under new coach Mike Budenholzer and behind early MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have won eight of their first 10 games. They’re leading the NBA in 3-point makes and rebounding while ranking second in defensive rating and third in offensive rating.
“The mentality that Mike has instilled is similar to Houston,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “We ‘re going to shoot a ton of 3s, we’re going to make you cover the whole floor and surround Giannis with shooters. It’s tough to guard.”
Most striking, the Bucks have abandoned their typically deliberate pace to go uptempo as often as possible. They were 20th in pace last season, 26th year before, 22nd in 2015-16. This season, through 10 games, they’re seventh.
“Budenholzer’s put in a great system in terms of unlocking some potential,” Stephen Curry says. “They’re playing in today’s NBA style by trying to create open looks and find ways to highlight the talent they have, and they’re doing a great job.”
Insofar as the Warriors have struggled at times against recent Milwaukee teams, the defending champions come into this game with three goals.
One, they have to contain Antetokounmpo, perhaps by frustrating him, and that’s something sure to be more difficult with supreme irritant Draymond Green ruled out with a toe sprain. Antetokounmpo will see multiple defenders because that’s how the Warriors deal with superstars.
“You’ve got to know where he is at all times,” Curry says. “You’ve got to be able to put bodies in front of him. You know he’s going to get his points but you can’t let him facilitate and get to where he wants. You’ve got to try to make him as uncomfortable as possible.”
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Two, the Warriors will want to burn Milwaukee’s second unit, which can be vulnerable on defense. Portland’s CJ McCollum and Evan Turner combined for 56 points on 63.2-percent shooting in beating the Bucks on Tuesday. Turner, the Trail Blazers’ Sixth Man, was plus-21 in 32 minutes.
Three, and most important, the Warriors will have to limit the mistakes that have hurt them in recent games against this team. The Warriors have won four of the last six. In the two losses, they averaged 18 turnovers, leading to an average of 23.5 Milwaukee points. In the victories, those numbers are reduced to 13 and 16.5
“They’re a matchup that requires all your focus,” Curry says.
Kerr attributes the turnovers to Milwaukee’s length. Bucks management has stocked up in recent years on players with expansive wingspans. John Henson’s is 7-foot-5, Antetokounmpo’s is 7-foot-3, Tony Snell’s is 7-feet. Even Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, measures 6-11 from fingertip to fingertip.
“Their length defensively has been an issue,” Kerr says. “When you penetrate against these guys, the first few trips down you have to remind yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, we can’t pass over the top of these guys very easily.’ It seems like every time we play them, we have a few turnovers early when we’re trying to throw over the top and one of those long arms goes and their on a fast break the other way.
“So you have to be smart and you have to be sharp, execution-wise, and you’ve got to take what’s there and not try and bite off too much. If somebody’s open, just throw it to them and let the next guy make a play because you’re not going get a whole lot done in that forest in there, with all those long arms.”
The Bucks have been on the outskirts of NBA significance for the better part of 20 years. George Karl pushed them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001 -- four months before the 9/11 attacks -- and they’ve since ended every season by missing the playoffs (nine times) or being ousted in the first round (eight times).
There’s a very different feel this season. The untapped potential is becoming visible. The Bucks have a new coach, a new approach, a new arena, the Fiserv Forum, and now have a new confidence.
And on Thursday night, they’re going to require the full and undivided attention of the defending champs.