Tonight marks game 82 of the regular season, and the final slate of contests league wide before the NBA playoffs. As always, the regular season has flown by at a ridiculous rate, it feels like just yesterday that Giannis was dunking on Aron Baynes in Boston as the Bucks opened up their season 1-0.
The great news for the Bucks is that they’ll FINALLY have each of their key players available for the first time this season. At shoot around this morning Joe Prunty confirmed to the media that Giannis Antetokounmpo will return from a two game absence, while Matthew Dellavedova will play for the first time in two months, recovering from an ankle sprain just in time. With Malcolm Brogdon’s return against Orlando on Monday night, it marks the first time that Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon will play in the same game. Incredible.
All they’ll face tonight is the Sixers, winners of 15 straight games and the current holders of the third seed in the East. The streak has come on the back of sensational rookie Ben Simmons averaging a triple double over the span, even with all-star big man Joel Embiid missing the last seven games with a facial fracture.
With Simmons elite ball handling and passing ability, he’s been getting out in transition and finding the Sixers shooters (in which they have many) at will, to the roars of the euphoric Philly crowd that are beginning to dream about an incoming playoff run.
The unique twist in tonights tale is the fact that tonights match up could well be the first of potentially eight in a row, with the two squads currently lined up to face each other in the playoffs. There are far too many different scenarios to discuss right now, but Cleveland, Miami and Washington are the other teams to keep an eye on tonight.
On the injury front, the Bucks will go in with a clean slate for the first time all season. Philadelphia will still be missing Embiid, with his timetable still unknown. The original prognosis would have him returning some time during the first round.
The Bucks were hardly impressive in their last two outings against New York and Orlando, strong fourth quarters allowing them to surge away to double digit victories in both. They now will experience a whole different level of competition as the playoffs essentially begin tonight. With the cavalry arriving just in time, the Bucks will be hoping it’s a sign of good things to come.
Kane’s Keys To Victory:
- Work Brogdon and Delly in to the fold: Both Malcolm and Delly were hoping to be back a little sooner than this. Though, it’s better late than never right? For the Bucks, it certainly is, as they get two key rotation guards back on the eve of the playoffs. Both guys have been working hard at practice for weeks, and should have enough miles under their legs to not feel completely blown up on return. Outside of getting reps, the team needs to get re-acquainted with two guys that have played major minutes over the past two seasons. Whether it’s timing that perfect backdoor bounce pass to the cutting Brogdon, or sensing the release on a Delly lob, the Bucks have one night to fine tune these things before the stakes go up several notches.
- Dishin’ Bledsoe: Eric Bledsoe has always largely been perceived as a scoring point guard. His explosive moves to the basket allowing him to score at an extremely high rate when he wants to. Over this latest 14 game stretch for the Bucks, we’ve seen him score, but also distribute at a very high level. Averaging five assists on the season, he has dished out 6.9 assists per game over that period. His ability to push the ball in transition, looking for easy buckets for his team mates has been a refreshing sight, and one that will elevate the already potent individual Bucks offense to a new level. Dishin’ Bledsoe is good. Really good.
- Keep Ben out of the paint: Ben Simmons is an elite finisher in the restricted area. He’s also averaging 8.2 assists on the season. This balloons to 10.5 assists per game over the last 21 games. He’s adjusted to NBA play on the fly and is becoming scarily aware of game situations and what his squad needs him to do on any given night. For a rookie, this level of comfort is unheard of. The last time these two teams met, Simmons torched the Bucks early as the Sixers racked up a 20+ point lead. Simmons had 11 assists in the first half, as he picked apart the lax Milwaukee defense at will. In the second half, Milwaukee did an excellent job of keeping Simmons (and Embiid) out of the paint, nullifying his impact, and the Bucks stormed home to win 118-110. Simmons finished with just 12 points and 15 assists, whilst committing six turnovers. The second half, there is your blueprint Milwaukee.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus