Don’t look now but here come the Milwaukee Bucks!
You would be hard-pressed to find another defending NBA champion that has received so little fanfare following their championship season, then this year’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite being among the better teams in the East record-wise for a large chunk of this season, they have flown under the radar of heightened expectations which is unusual for a defending NBA champion that brought back most of its championship core.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has once again been delivering MVP-like production, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have been a solid 1-2 punch as part of Giannis’ strong supporting cast.
They are the hottest team in the East right now with six straight wins and have moved within two games of the Miami Heat for the best record in the East.
Finishing first in the East during the regular season would be nice, but it’s certainly not a goal or expectation for the Bucks. Instead, they’re more locked into finishing the regular season playing good basketball, being healthy while taking the necessary steps to defend their NBA crown from a year ago.
1. Phoenix (53-13)
When you talk about the top defensive wings in the NBA, Mikal Bridges is one of the names that should be brought up. His play has been instrumental for a Phoenix team that has been a top-five defense most of this season.
2. Miami (44-23)
The Heat is in good shape to remain atop the East in part because of a schedule that isn’t nearly as daunting as some of the other teams near the top in the East. Miami’s strength of schedule for the remainder of the season ranks 25th (out of 30 teams).
3. Milwaukee (42-25)
The Bucks offense has been on a torrid tear lately, averaging 127.7 points per game in their last six games - all wins. A big part of their success has been Giannis Antetokounmpo getting to the free-throw line, a lot. In the Bucks’ last six games, he has averaged 13.3 free throw attempts per game which is second in that span to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (15.3 attempts per game).
4. Boston (40-27)
The addition of Derrick White via trade from San Antonio has bolstered an already-strong Celtics defense. He averages 7.1 contested shots per game which ranks tied for second in the NBA this season among guards.
5. Memphis (45-22)
Golden State’s recent slump has opened the door for the Grizzlies to continue moving within striking distance of West-leading Phoenix.
6. Philadelphia (40-25)
The Sixers have shown themselves to be a good team with James Harden, but the blowout loss at home to Brooklyn exposed a couple of concerns (depth; perimeter shooting) they have going forward.
7. Golden State (44-22)
The Warriors got a bit of good news on the health front with Draymond Green set to return next week and center James Wiseman has now been cleared to play in G-League games which is a clear indicator that he will make his season debut sooner rather than later for Golden State.