Bucks looking like a team that could jump into NBA's elite ahead of schedule
With length and defense, the Bucks are proving that the future might be right now
The chant echoed throughout the cavernous Bradley Center moments before tipoff of Game 3 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, and it wasn't long until the Raptors found out it was more than just a catchy slogan for the Bucks to throw on T-shirts.
"FEAR THE DEER! FEAR THE DEER! FEAR THE DEER!"
It's a message the rest of the league should take seriously because, Thursday night in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and company showed the whole world the best version of the Bucks -- a team that's more than just young, fun and exciting -- is a team that's capable of demolishing anyone in the league on any given night. And they might not be far from making that a regular occurrence.
"They came out and threw the first punch," Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll said after the Bucks ran the Raptors right off the floor, winning 104-77 in a game that was over after the first quarter.
The Bucks jumped out to a 32-12 lead in the opening 12 minutes, holding the Raps to just 4-of-18 shooting, a theme that would continue throughout the night, with Toronto finishing 24 of 71 from the field. DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 27 points in the regular season, went 0 for 8, and the entire Raptors starting lineup made only 11 shots -- the same number Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley combined for off the bench for Milwaukee.
Boosted, to be sure, by a crowd Giannis called "unbelievable" following the game, the Bucks blitzed the Raptors defensively, using their length and athleticism to shut down everything the visitors tried to do in half court. They hounded Toronto's ball handlers, challenged almost every shot and crashed the glass well, allowing only nine offensive rebounds, six of which came late in the fourth quarter when the game had long been decided.
You're not going to hold teams to 33 percent shooting and 77 points every night, but when the Bucks start Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker -- who has turned into a useful player much sooner than probably anyone, even the Bucks, could have imagined -- Milwaukee has a group that can be absolutely devastating on the defensive end.
In 135 minutes together in the regular season, that lineup boasted a defensive rating of 99.8, which would have been best in the league, and they've been equally as impressive in the postseason, as evidenced by Thursday night's performance.
They're big, they're athletic and they are incredibly long, with all five starters featuring wingspans of 6-feet-10 or longer. Not only can they shrink the floor and constantly get deflections, but when they do make mistakes, they're able to recover in ways few teams can.
Milwaukee has its star, in Antetokounmpo, and a young supporting cast, led by Khris Middleton, that has looked strong in this series. (And that doesn't even include Jabari Parker, who will be out until sometime next season with a torn ACL). They're going to be able to score points, but almost every team in the league can score. Where this group can separate itself is on the defensive end, and when you can get stops and force turnovers -- which they did plenty of during Game 3 -- it only makes scoring easier.
After Middleton's return back in early February, the Bucks went 20-12 to close the regular season, a mark topped by only the Warriors and Spurs, and are now up 2-1 on the No. 3-seeded Raptors, a bunch some saw as a potential threat to the Cavaliers' reign in the East.
It certainly appears the Bucks are starting to put everything together, which Middleton alluded to following the Game 3 victory.
"I think we're starting with our defense more, we're learning how to play smart basketball. Learning how to use our length and trying to play to our advantage more," said Middleton, who led the Bucks with 20 points.
During Game 3, that growth was evident. But more so than just one spectacular effort, we saw all of the hope and upside and potential that the team has been building for the past few years realized. It was the best game the Bucks have played -- certainly in the postseason, at least -- since Ray Allen and company ran the Bradley Center back in the early 2000s.
And maybe, just maybe, these young Bucks aren't so far off from being able to, as their motto says, "Own The Future."
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