At 12-4, the Milwaukee Bucks are in the middle of their best start to a season since 1985-86. No longer talented underachievers, this team expects to win, regardless of how far they fall behind.
Following up from their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last week, the Milwaukee Bucks have responded with two gritty wins at home. It hasn’t exactly been easy however, clawing back from a 22 point deficit against Chicago, before storming back from 17 points down against Denver.
After the game against the Nuggets, the feel in the locker room post-game is far from a celebratory one, in fact, there’s a sense of calm among the group, as if the result was never in doubt.
This group has developed an extraordinary sense of belief in one another, which is somewhat surprising given they are still ironing out the kinks in a brand new system under Mike Budenholzer. Antetokounmpo sums up that confidence in a matter of fact way.
“This year we’ve realised how good we are and how talented we are,” Antetokounmpo said. “We know we are gonna make shots, we know we are gonna get back in the game.”
Point guard Eric Bledsoe, fresh off a 23-point, five rebound, five assist effort, including back-to-back fourth quarter triples, is even more specific in his appraisal of where the credit deserves to fall.
“It’s Bud. He’s told us if we are open shoot it, don’t hesitate and we’re doing it at a high rate,” he explained. “Unfortunately, it didn’t fall for us in the first half but later on in the game they started to connect.”
Through the seasons first weeks, the analytical sector of the basketball market has been giddy when analysing the transformation of this Bucks outfit.
Their previously anaemic 3-point offense has morphed into one of the most dangerous in the league, while their insanely aggressive defensive principles –to put it politely– have been replaced with a basic approach programmed around coercing their opponents into low percentage shot attempts.
That in itself would be enough for this squad to make a jump, but when you pair it with unlimited servings of self-confidence, you find yourself in possession of a potent recipe for success.
Budenholzer himself, is far less willing to take credit for his teams success, while conversely being open to taking responsibility for his teams shortcomings.
This is unquestionably a polar opposite from last season, where former coach Jason Kidd would routinely blame his teams losses on the ‘energy and effort’ of the players. To a man, the Bucks squad is effusive in their praise for the impact Coach Budenholzer has had through his first few months in Milwaukee, although he himself, typically underplayed that notion at practice on Tuesday.
“Well, I think it’s a lot more them,” Budenholzer said with a shrug. “But I mean there’s no doubt they’re hearing the same message about shooting when they’re open and shooting with confidence. We’re going to play the same way from the start of the game to the end of the game.”
That consistent approach came to the fore against Denver, when the previously 0-for-7 from deep, Khris Middleton, buried a step-back 3-point shot to give the Bucks a five point lead with just 27.6 seconds left on the clock.
Continuing on, Budenholzer mentioned the importance of consistency with his message to the group through adversity.
“I do think there’s something for that,” Budenholzer said. “They start to really figure out what you believe in and what you’re going to really take to the grave. I think those things come through when you’re working on it through September and through training camp and into the season so hopefully it’s clear and direct messaging.”
The Bucks found themselves trailing by ten points heading into halftime against Denver, but according to Antetokounmpo, the message was simple from the coach.
“He came in and said, ‘Okay, guys. You know what you have to do. Just put some energy in this game and you’re going to win this game.’”
Responding to a follow up question from The Athletic’s Eric Nehm, Antetokounmpo gave Bucks fans their best anecdotal evidence yet that their team is in the best of hands moving forward compared with previous years.
“I don’t know what the difference is. Probably Jason would have yelled at us and we would have stayed close in a shell. And sometimes when guys got yelled at, they had a tendency not to play as hard and play a little bit more scared. But with Coach Bud, it’s always coming from a good place.
“He gives you the green light, but he’s always going to scold you. He’s going to talk to you. Like when you’re messing up, he’s going to let you know. But when you do good stuff, he’s always going to tell you and make you feel positive and make you play for the team.”
For so long a frustratingly talented group trotting out mediocre results, something finally feels different in Milwaukee. For the first time since the Ray Allen days, the Bucks give you the impression they could actually compete in the East.
Sometimes, a little positive reinforcement is all a team needs.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus