The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2020-21 season in a lose-lose situation.
Back-to-back postseason failures have overshadowed a dominant 116-39 record over the last two seasons for Mike Budenholzer's squad, casting a dark shadow over the team's ability to be a legitimate contender when it matters most.
Currently holding a 25-14 record this season, the Bucks have the league's second-best offence (117.3) and net rating (7.3), while sitting in 10th for defensive efficiency (110.0).
Despite the numbers suggesting Milwaukee is well and truly in the title mix, let's take a quick temperature check on where the Bucks currently stand at the halfway point of the season.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo in MVP form
Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. That's the list of players who have won back-to-back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards in NBA history.
Barely mentioned in the conversation thus far, Antetokounmpo is quietly building a campaign that rivals his two MVP seasons.
Finishing an absolutely absurd 79.0 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, Antetokounmpo has somehow continued the upward trajectory in paint dominance - he was at 74.2 percent in 2019-20 and 73.7 percent in 2018-19. Accompanying those attempts at the rim are a career-high 10.1 free-throws per game, which the 26-year-old is knocking down at a 67.7 percent.
While that number is not all that impressive on it's own, Antetokounmpo is 150-for-198 (75.0 percent) since the beginning of February after starting the season 110-for-186 (59.0 percent).
For all the talk of an outside shot, a respectable free-throw percentage in the postseason could be enough to tilt the scales in Milwaukee's favour during a tight series, with the Bucks superstar languishing at 57-for-101 (56.4 percent) in series losses to Toronto and Miami over the last two campaigns.
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More than anything, the Bucks appear to be playing without the weight of expectation this season, as Antetokounmpo continuously preaches the importance of building towards the postseason rather than dominating from opening night.
"I believe fear and fun cannot go together - it's either one or the other. This year, I've chose for it to be fun," Antetokounmpo said after the All-Star Game in Atlanta.
"Every game I step on the floor, fun. Pregame, fun. With my teammates, fun. I want to have around my team, fun energy. Not worrying about the outcome. Not worrying about where we're trying to get. Just how can we enjoy this moment."
Antetokounmpo is smiling and the Bucks seem at ease. Time will tell if that approach proves beneficial under the pressure of the postseason.
The marquee addition
Jrue Holiday has been impressive despite a significant interruption due to the veteran guard contracting COVID-19.
Missing 10 games with the virus, Holiday is only just finding his feet after admitting to feeling symptoms during the period. The Bucks managed to go 5-5 without their starting point guard, treading water to withstand a five-game losing streak in that time.
Ranked second in offence, 10th in defence and second in net rating on the season as a whole, the Bucks slipped to 10th in offence, 20th in defence and ninth in net rating without Holiday in the lineup.
|Holiday on (895 mins)||118.0||106.7||+11.3|
|Holiday off (977 mins)||115.0||110.9||+4.1|
Known for his elite defensive capabilities, the 30-year-old has delivered on the other end of the floor in big moments for the Bucks, including this recent game-winner against the Memphis Grizzlies.
JRUE HOLIDAY GAME WINNER!! pic.twitter.com/XkTCXkQLzw- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 5, 2021
Tallying 22-plus points on six occasions this season, Holiday has saved his highest scoring performances for top tier opponents, with those outings coming against the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.
"If you can't handle pressure you probably shouldn't be in this line of work to be honest with you," Holiday responded when asked about being seen as the missing link on the roster prior to the season starting.
On a team that has struggled for a legitimate third option next to Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in the postseason, the significance of adding Holiday cannot be understated.
Role players and depth
Ranked fourth in 3-point percentage, the Bucks have been shooting the lights out from beyond the arc.
Much of that success has come from the role players, with Bobby Portis (48.9 percent), Bryn Forbes (46.7), Pat Connaughton (39.1) and DJ Augustin (38.0) catching fire to start the season.
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Drilling 40.9 percent of their wide open looks generated with the gravity of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday, the question remains whether this will be sustainable into the playoffs. In the above mentioned series losses to Toronto and Miami, the Bucks finished a miserable 61-for-192 (31.7 percent) on wide open attempts.
Bucks general manager Jon Horst highlighted the need to acquire shooting that would translate to the postseason in his preseason availability.
So far, so good for the Bucks ... but we have seen this story before.
The road to the playoffs
The Bucks have been far from the juggernaut that ran through the league the past two regular seasons.
"Are we getting better? We're getting better for sure. Win, lose, we're getting better. Game by game, we improve," Antetokounmpo told the media after a loss to Utah earlier in the season. "Are we trying new things? Yes, we are trying new things."
Perhaps the approach is starting to pay dividends, with Milwaukee heading into a meeting with the Philadelphia 76ers having won nine of its last 10.
"We gotta improve, but we want to play the best basketball we can play, but not now," Antetokounmpo remarked after a loss to the Phoenix Suns. "I know it looks fancy and sexy, winning 16 in a row, 18 in a row, feels good. Everybody talks about you. Best team in the NBA, all that. But you gotta play the best basketball at the end.
"So, me personally, that's my mindset."
With three meetings against Philadelphia, two against Boston and Brooklyn and one against each of the LA teams on the run home, Milwaukee will have a perfect opportunity to fine tune the adjustments under the big game spotlight.
Truth is, Antetokounmpo is correct. The regular season results won't matter, it won't give them validation. That will only come with a breakthrough trip to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
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