Upcoming stretch run will be a huge test for the Milwaukee Bucks

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Well, the defending champs certainly didn’t play like the defending champs in their first game back from the All-Star break. Although, with how the Milwaukee Bucks‘ season has gone to this point, maybe this is how the defending champs play.

A disappointing three-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets (who were without Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons) underscores what has been an uneven season for the Bucks so far. I’ve been incredibly optimistic about them all season, citing injuries and fatigue as reasons for why they’ve been this way.

I’m still optimistic that getting Brook Lopez back will help, but it’s hard not to get a little pessimistic considering he’s coming off of back surgery and we have no idea how he’ll look. In their final 21 games, though, the champs will face no shortage of tests and that could be a good thing heading into the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks will have to ace their tests down the stretch

Because I am who I am, I’m not hitting the panic button or will even consider myself worried about the Bucks at this point yet. We’ve seen what the Bucks can do at their best in a couple of big games this season when they look like they’re feeling up to the challenge.

It’s a bit cliche, but too often it seems as if the Bucks play with their food and don’t take their opponents as seriously as they should. Playing down to their competition, almost.

Well, if they want tougher tests, then that’s what they’ll be getting in their final 21 games of the regular season.

They have, pretty easily, the hardest remaining schedule, with their opponent’s combined win percentages at 55.5 percent. The Nets actually weighed down that number, so things only get tougher from here, including another game against the Nets but they’ll likely have Durant and Simmons for that one.

14 of their remaining games are against teams that occupy a top-six seed in their conference (above the play-in line) and 17 against teams also in the play-in. There are going to be a ton of high-profile matchups coming up.

To be clear, I don’t think the Bucks need to worry about seeding or anything like that. They’ll win enough games to secure a top-five seed (probably top-four) and will figure it out from there. This is more about how the team is playing.

This final stretch is going to tell us a ton about who the Bucks are going into the playoffs. We know that, for the most part, they’ll be carried by their big three and Bobby Portis offensively. Grayson Allen will chip in, but he’s struggled to get a rhythm when the team has its three best players. Getting Pat Connaughton back will also help as he’s been fantastic behind the 3-point line this season.

It’s just hard not to think that the Bucks don’t have it this season. Inconsistency and lackadaisical play have plagued them all season, leading to losses against teams they absolutely should beat (and have beaten in the Mike Budenholzer era).

They’re still… fine against the best teams. They’re 7-9 against teams with a top 10 net rating this season and have the 14th best net rating in those games (-3.9), per Cleaning the Glass (subscription required). They have the 8th best offense in games against top 10 opponents (109.9) but it has been their defense that has let them down (113.8, 18th).

The Bucks are still awesome when they have their three best players on the floor. Even the defense, which has started to spring leaks in recent weeks, is still one of the best units when Giannis Anteokounmpo is on the floor. Seriously, when Antetokounmpo is out there, the Bucks allow 105 points per 100 possessions. That would be a top-four defense in the league.

The biggest thing that we’ve held onto all season is that once Lopez comes back and the playoffs hit, the Bucks will flip a switch. I’m obviously biased here, but I do think that could happen and the Bucks should still be considered the favorites (or one of the two favorites) in the East.

Lopez is progressing towards a return but there’s still no timeline. It would be great to get him back for a good chunk of these remaining games so they can match up against some of these really good teams with close to their full roster.

Whether Lopez is back for a bunch of those games or not, the Bucks will need to find ways to win against these good teams.

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We’ll see how they fare as the games get more important leading up to the playoffs.