3 burning questions for the Milwaukee Bucks down the stretch

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 26: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Milwaukee Bucks: Wesley Matthews, Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
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The final stretch of the NBA season is arguably the most crucial point for teams looking to contend for a title. At this juncture, rotations are set, coaching and player adjustments should have already been made, and it’s largely a matter of staying consistent as the playoffs draw closer. But it’s been a funny sort of season for the Milwaukee Bucks thus far.

Their starting center has played less than 10 games with them and is only just now easing back into midseason form. They’ve been the second seed but at one point, also the seventh seed in an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference that looks ready to take back the crown.

So what kind of shape are the Milwaukee Bucks in as the season comes to a close? Here are a few questions the defending champs have yet to answer before the playoffs finally kick in.

Can the Milwaukee Bucks regain their defensive prowess?

For any team who watched the Bucks in the finals a year ago, this should be the principal question. After all, it’s one that’s been nagging all season long: can they get back to where they were on that end of the floor?

To put it bluntly, we’re seeing none of that now. As it currently stands, the Milwaukee Bucks’ defensive rating of 110.4 points given up per 100 possessions is tied for 13th in the league. This comes after a championship run for the ages where the team was buoyed largely by their league-leading defense. The Bucks ended the playoffs as the best defensive unit in the league, and it was their defensive intensity that carried them to their first title after 50 years. As they continue to ease big man Brook Lopez back into the rotation, the Bucks’ focus now should be getting the most out of his talent on that end of the floor.

The number for the season isn’t looking good, but there are still clear signs for optimism. Since February, they’ve been third in offensive rating (119.9 points per 100) and seventh in net rating (plus-5.2), according to NBA.com/stats. This, despite the fact that their 19th-ranked 114.7 defensive rating still remains very middle of the pack thus far into the season. The Bucks were also rather middling a year ago before they turned it on in the playoffs; in the grand scheme of things, the tinkering and experimentation in the regular season only did good things for them later on.

And even though they’re giving up more points than usual, the numbers show they’re still holding true to the defensive identity that saw them winning it all just a few months ago. According to NBA.com/stats, Milwaukee is fourth in the league in stopping the opposition from scoring in the paint, where rival scorers have only scored 43.5 points per game.

Instead, the signs are pointing to the number being a result of their personnel or lack thereof. Getting their towering rim-protector in Brook Lopez back along with the acclimatization of Jevon Carter, who’s been nothing short of a defensive revelation at the point of attack, should bode well for this Milwaukee Bucks team moving forward.

One cause for concern, though, is that while the eye test says that Brook is piecing their dominant defense back together again, the stats are saying the opposite. According to PBP Stats, Lopez has been a complete negative on that end of the floor despite the physical tools and defensive IQ he brings to the floor. In his 181 minutes of play for the Bucks, the team has given up an unencouraging 121.8 points per 100 possessions versus the 111.2 defensive rating they registered with him on the bench.

The sample size is still pretty lacking, however. If there’s one takeaway from this stat, it’s that Brook Lopez hasn’t gotten into his final form yet this season. This only means that the best is still yet to come for the seven-foot big man.