MILWAUKEE — DURING A TIMEOUT late in the fourth quarter of a Feb. 24 game against the Miami Heat, Jrue Holiday picked up an orange Gatorade bottle and channeled his inner Backstreet Boy.
Holiday had gone to the bench for the final time with 4:30 remaining and his Milwaukee Bucks leading 124-89 on their way to their 13th consecutive win, so it was time for Holiday to enjoy the moment.
“Don’t want to hear you say.”
Holiday lip-synced into his Gatorade bottle, jumping out of his seat as the sold-out crowd of 17,676 at Fiserv Forum cheered him on during “Crowd Karaoke” playing on the Bucks’ video board above the court.
“Ain’t nothing but a heartache.”
Milwaukee has had plenty of moments to enjoy of late, having won 21 of its past 23 games. The Bucks enter their showdown with the Golden State Warriors (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC) — a meeting of the past two NBA champions — as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, 2.5 games up on the Boston Celtics for the best record in the NBA.
“Sometimes timing matters in this league,” an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN. “They’re finally healthy and hitting their stride at the right time.”
There have been four instances of a team winning at least 15 straight games in the past five seasons and the Bucks are responsible for two of them. Before the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Bucks 133-130 last week, Milwaukee had won 16 in a row, the third-longest streak in franchise history.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to become the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to average 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting 50%. Center Brook Lopez is a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year, as is Holiday, who made the All-Star team for the first time since 2012-13, and is enjoying his best season in a Bucks uniform. Khris Middleton is finally healthy and embracing his recent role as a sixth man, leading a bench unit that has become one of the deepest in the league, especially after the trade deadline acquisition of Jae Crowder.
After losing in seven games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season, the Bucks brought back their entire rotation to gear up for another chance at a championship. Now with one month left in the regular season, the Bucks’ offense is clicking, their defense remains dominant and they have built a deeper rotation than last year as they look to reclaim the title they won in 2021 but couldn’t defend last season.
“When you’ve won and you stay together, they just know how to win,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before a game in Milwaukee last week. “You can see it in their play. They’re able to bring other people in and buy into that same chemistry and culture because they’ve done it and their key guys have all been there to the promised land.
“Every team that hasn’t won or hasn’t been to the Finals, there’s times you can get to them; you’re not getting to the Bucks. You’re just not. There’s nothing you can do that’s going to shake them.”
WHEN THE BUCKS were playing well early in the season, they were using a dominant defense that has ranked at or near the top of the league since the start of the year. Milwaukee’s offense, however, has been a work in progress. The Bucks have spent most of the year ranked in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency and are currently ranked 17th in points per 100 possessions.
But just before they ripped off 16 wins in a row — the longest win streak by any team in the NBA this season — the Bucks made a subtle tweak to their game plan. The goal: play with pace.
Knicks-Lakers, 9 p.m.
76ers-Cavaliers, 7:30 p.m.
Warriors-Clippers, 10 p.m.
*All times Eastern
The Bucks are playing faster, not by creating more transition opportunities but instead getting into their half-court sets much more quickly. Antetokounmpo said the team got too methodical in how it wanted to break down defenses at the beginning of the season, hunting mismatches and moving the ball in the half court instead of playing within the flow of an offense.
During their win streak, the Bucks played at the fastest pace in the NBA, with an average possession length of 14.7 seconds on half-court sets, the fastest in the league according to Second Spectrum and 1.2 seconds faster than their average possession before the streak, which ranked 18th in the NBA. The Bucks shot the ball within the first 12 seconds of the shot clock on 58% of half-court sets, the highest mark in the NBA during that span.
In 20 games since Jan. 23 (the day Middleton returned and their 16-game winning streak began), the Bucks are averaging 123.9 points, the most in the NBA.
“At the end of the day, we’re at our best when we play fast,” Antetokounmpo said after a win last week.
While their offense improved, the Bucks didn’t have to sacrifice anything on defense. Milwaukee is third in the league in defensive efficiency for the entire season and has led the league in that category since Jan. 23.
So while Antetokounmpo made note of the offensive strides the team has made in recent weeks, he made sure to reiterate that defense was still the backbone of this team.
“The year we won and when we have been at our best is when we defend,” Antetokounmpo said. “This league is so talented, you can’t trade baskets. … We have to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. And that I think is going to help us be at our best. Some days we are not going to score the ball. We’ve got to know our defense is going to be there and we can rely on it all the time.”
ON THE FINAL day of the 2021-22 regular season, the Bucks decided to rest.
With a top-three seed secured, the Bucks sat Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Lopez and Bobby Portis for their regular-season finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Holiday started to secure a contract bonus, but played just eight seconds before sitting out the rest of the game. Milwaukee used just six other players — mostly little-used reserves like Sandro Mamukelashvili and Rayjon Tucker — in a 133-115 loss to the Cavs.
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The Bucks ended up as the No. 3 seed in the East, which helped them avoid a first-round series against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, who’d taken Milwaukee to seven games during the previous conference semifinals and had them within a Durant toe of going home early.
But the decision to essentially hand the Celtics the No. 2 seed came back to haunt the Bucks. Boston held home-court advantage for the teams’ second-round series, meaning the decisive Game 7 was played at TD Garden, where the Celtics coasted to a blowout 109-81 victory. The Bucks regret how the end of the regular season played out, team sources told ESPN, and while finishing this season healthy will be their priority, the Bucks want to enter the playoffs as the top seed and make the East go through Milwaukee.
The Bucks have the depth to achieve that goal, even while some of their best players miss games. Antetokounmpo left in the first quarter because of injury in back-to-back games and missed another after the All-Star break — the Bucks won all three of those games. On Tuesday night, Milwaukee was missing both of its 2023 All-Stars in Antetokounmpo and Holiday and still got a 134-122 win over Orlando thanks to a combined 50 points from Lopez and Middleton.
“The depth is really helping us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There’s a lot of good players, we can go lots of different directions, there’s versatility with the roster.”
Milwaukee was able to trade for Crowder without giving up any of their top nine rotation players. They signed Joe Ingles as a free agent coming off a torn ACL and he returned in December, sooner than expected. Milwaukee even boosted the back-end of its bench recently, adding veteran guard Goran Dragic and signing center Meyers Leonard to a 10-day contract. Both Crowder and Dragic have previous Finals experience.
Middleton played 30 minutes on Tuesday for the first time since returning from injury and finished with 24 points and 11 assists. He looked like he was starting to regain his own All-Star form after missing the final 10 playoff games in 2022 and 39 of the first 46 games this season. When he does play, the Bucks are 19-4, a 67-win pace for an entire season.
Still, playing for such an extended stretch without Middleton forced the Bucks to adjust and has given Holiday room to become more aggressive. His 19.7 points per game are his most since 2018-19 with the New Orleans Pelicans and he’s taking 15.6 shots per night, more than he did in either of his first two seasons in Milwaukee.
“We had a lot of different lineups at the beginning of the season with a lot of guys injured and in and out of the lineup, so that was a bit of a blessing honestly,” Lopez said. “A lot of guys got to play, figure things out. We got to play with different lineups, create relationships on the court. And now that we’re back, pretty much healthy for the most part, I think we’re reaping the benefits.”