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After the Milwaukee Bucks' loss to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 6, Giannis Antetokounmpo let loose. In a lengthy rant, the two-time MVP called out himself, his teammates, the coaching staff and even the equipment manager. 

"Offense is gonna be there some nights, and, some nights, it's not going to be there," Antetokounmpo said. "Your defensive effort, though, has got to be there.

"Pride. Pride. Pride. Pride. We gotta take it personal. Like, we have to take it personal. Whoever wants to play hard, plays hard. Whoever doesn't want to play hard, it's gotta be a decision that's gotta be made. Even myself, too. If I don't play hard, sit me out, sit me on the bench. There's times I'm tired and I don't play as hard as I can, and there's times even when I give everything I have. But we have to have a mentality of whenever we step on the floor, we have to get stops."

Two nights later, the Bucks gave up 11 3-pointers and 41 points in the first quarter en route to a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz, their fourth defeat in five games. Along the way, they earned boos inside Fiserv Forum for the first time that Antetokounmpo could remember. The message, apparently, had not been received. 

"At the end of the day, you gotta play hard," Antetokounmpo said after the defeat to the Jazz. "I don't think it's about making or missing shots. It's about giving effort out there and when you don't, I think people feel that. When you wear a Bucks jersey and you don't play hard – not just Bucks jerseys, any jersey. 

"I think we have great fans. But around the league, if you don't play hard and don't give everything for the team, there are times where you might get booed. Shit, I'd boo myself tonight too."

Concerning, yes, but the bigger problem for the Bucks is that their lack of coaching experience and defensive talent outside of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez has put a hard cap on the level they can get to on that side of the ball. Which, in turn, may limit what they can achieve as a team this season. 

At their best, they've been a middle-of-the-pack unit. At their worst, they might as well not even be out there. 

Time spanDef. rtg.League rank

Last five games



2023-24 season



2022-23 season



Since 1998, which is as far as the NBA's stats site database goes back, only the 2023 Nuggets (15th) and 2001 Lakers (22nd) have won a title while finishing 15th or worse in defensive rating during the regular season. Both of them improved in the playoffs against elite competition. Thus far, the Bucks have not shown that they'll be able to do the same. 

Delving further into the data, here's where the Bucks rank in some key areas. The only positive number you can point to – how opponents shoot on wide-open shots – essentially comes down to luck. 

Statistical category (all per game)2023-24 (League rank)2022-23 (League rank)

Opponent restricted area attempts

27.1 (22nd)

24.2 (4th)

Opponent restricted area FG%

65.9% (T-14th)

65.3% (7th)

Opponent wide-open 3-point attempts

19.5 (19th)

17.3 (19th)

Opponent wide-open 3PFG%

35.1% (1st)

37.8% (9th)

Opponent points in the paint

53.6 (26th)

49.6 (13th)

Opponent second-chance points

15.0 (26th)

13.4 (12th)

Opponent fastbreak points

15.0 (T-23rd)

13.0 (5th)

"Now, defensively, we have to have a plan," Antetokounmpo said after the Rockets loss. "What is our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open 3s? Are we going to let them get in the paint? When they go in the post, are we going to stay with ours and play one-on-one? What is our strategy? Right now, we are giving everything. We are giving everything. We are giving the 3s. We are giving straight-line drives. We are letting guys play in the post and get comfortable. We're giving offensive rebounds."

Their form since the start of the new year has been particularly concerning. Playing the high-octane Pacers twice certainly hasn't helped, but that doesn't explain giving up 121 points to the lowly Spurs, playing with "no pride" against the Rockets according to Antetokounmpo, nor getting blown out by the Jazz at home in the very next game despite their superstar's tirade.

While Antetokounmpo's comments focused on effort, the specific issues he mentioned have been on full display during this skid. 

'What is our strategy?'

Here, in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, it's not entirely clear what the plan was as they extended the defense into the backcourt, but didn't put any pressure on the ball. As a result, the Spurs easily break the token press and wind up with a dunk.

Against the Jazz, the problem was more about communication, or lack thereof. Andre Jackson Jr. and Brook Lopez both go with John Collins as he rolls to the basket, which leaves Jordan Clarkson wide open for a 3.

'Are we going to give up a lot of open 3s?'

'Are we going to let them get in the paint?'

'When they go in the post are we going to stay with ours and play one-on-one?'

'Right now we are giving everything… we are giving straight-line drives'

Many of the Bucks' issues stem from the latter. Whether in one-on-one situations or in pick-and-rolls, it's simply too easy for opposing ball handlers to get into the paint and either score themselves or collapse the defense. Even offensive rebounds are easier when the defense has rotated and guards are trying to box out big men, or the floor is unbalanced. 

When the Bucks traded for Damian Lillard shortly before the start of training camp, the initial excitement focused on the offensive possibilities, and for good reason. The seven-time All-Star is one of the best shooters and scorers of his generation, and the most talented teammate that Antetokounmpo has ever played with. 

Lillard is also a below-average defender, and back in September, there were more than a few dissenting voices concerned about the effect that swapping Jrue Holiday for him would have on that side of the ball. Former Bucks coach George Karl even went so far as to say that "in the playoffs, Holiday might be better than Lillard." 

We'll have to wait until the spring to see about that bold claim, but the Bucks' defensive problems are already obvious, and getting worse. When Holiday makes his first return to Milwaukee on Thursday, he'll face a Bucks team that misses him more than ever.