NBA Stats Notebook: The Milwaukee Bucks are on a shot-making stampede

NBA Stats Notebook: The Milwaukee Bucks are on a shot-making stampede

The Milwaukee Bucks enter the All-Star break as the hottest team in the NBA. They've won 12 straight games despite missing key contributors for parts of the surge, including Khris Middleton, Bobby Portis and, most recently, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"There’s 25, 26, I don’t know, 28 games left and (all our players) need to shut it down for a little bit, and then, they also need to come back with some conditioning and ready to work and ready for the stretch run,” Mike Budenholzer said before Thursday's win against the Chicago Bulls (and before Antetokounmpo injured his wrist). “Hopefully, we’ll be playing our best basketball as the playoffs start.”

It'd be hard to notice the Bucks' injury struggles on the scoreboard though. They still took down Chicago by double digits to cap a perfect run since the surge began on Jan. 23. The All-Star break presents a much-needed window to get healthy, but even in the thick of a race for the Eastern Conference's top seed, Milwaukee is learning that its depth of impact players might be more impressive than most realize.

The Bucks' top-ranked defense is the backbone of its current 41-17 record. Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday deserve all of the praise for their All-Defense-caliber seasons, and Antetokounmpo still excels in his own right.

Since the streak began though, Milwaukee has catapulted its offense forward. The team's offensive rating was No. 22 in the league (112.9) before the stretch; it ranks eighth (119.8) since, per Cleaning the Glass. Over the past four weeks, when Milwaukee has called on ancillary scorers to step up, they have answered the call.

The Bucks jack up a ton of threes. They're one of five NBA teams (plus the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz) who attempt more than 40% of their total shots from behind the arc. In the last 12 games, Milwaukee has increased the volume to more than 42 three-point attempts per game, and the shots are collectively falling (37.5%). 

Yet, only four players on the team are knocking down above 36% of those tries during the streak  Portis' one game notwithstanding): Jevon Carter, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and AJ Green. 

Carter deserves a spotlight as perhaps the breakout player of the season for his team. Milwaukee scooped up Carter late last February after he was waived by the Brooklyn Nets, and played him sparingly in the 2022 postseason. This year, the 27-year-old has earned a career-high 22.5 minutes per game and responded with his most impactful pro season, which includes a 41.7% three-point clip that has ballooned to 55.1% during this winning streak.

Carter has been all over the map as a shooter during his career, and he's finally blended volume, efficiency and shot variation together. He's hitting 41.2% of his threes when he needs less than two seconds to generate a shot, per PBP Stats.

More impressively? Carter has attempted 70 self-created threes this year, defined by PBP Stats as a shot that took more than two seconds to generate. Among 83 players who have tried 50 or more such shots this season, Carter's 42.9% shooting percentage ranks fourth behind only Malcolm Brogdon, Steph Curry and Desmond Bane.

That's stunning company to be in for a journeyman player whose calling card has historically been his defense. Milwaukee needs more individual creators; it's one reason Nekias Duncan mentioned Russell Westbrook as a sneaky-interesting buyout option (which I agree with, for the record). Carter is basically the opposite of Westbrook as a creator — Carter rarely gets to the rim by himself — but having a perimeter shot-maker with fewer peaks and valleys compared to, say, Holiday, is valuable.

And a quick sidebar on Carter: His defense has still fit right in. The 6-foot-1-inch combo guard is swiping 1.6 steals per 75 possessions, placing him in the 92nd percentile at his position, per BBall Index. He's defending players in BBall Index's highest usage tier on 32% of his possessions (99th percentile) and grading out highly both on tape and in the spreadsheet. Applaud this man.

Back to the shooting — Allen, one of two Bucks players to start more than 50 games this season, has drawn ire for an apparent reluctance to bomb away when shooting is primarily why he starts. During the 12-game winning streak, he's increased his three-point volume by about one attempt per game while still converting at an elite rate. It's nothing substantial, but hopefully a sign of progress.

Connaughton, meanwhile, had shaken off a ghastly shooting start prior to missing Thursday's win with a calf injury. The 30-year-old was shooting just 29.6% beyond the arc by the end of 2022. Since the calendar flipped, he's up to 39.4%, including 44.1% during the current streak.

Though he pops in and out of the rotation, Green also deserves a shout-out. The undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa knocked down 5 of 7 triples Thursday night, and has hit half of his threes attempted in the last 12 games despite wild playing time inconsistencies. Green is an unabashed gunner, and microwave movement shooting is a fun skill to have in the reserve.

With these four mostly healthy and cooking, life has become a little easier for Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is putting up a whopping 34.3 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game during the winning streak, even including his early exit against Chicago.

Antetokounmpo has dished out 3.8 three-point assists per game in that span. It's a rate that ranks second only behind Trae Young, and it's a full assist more than his rate prior to Jan. 23. 

It's fitting an assist like this put Antetokounmpo atop the franchise leaderboard. He draws three defenders to him in transition with his downhill force and makes a high-level pass to the corner. With sharpshooters like Carter, Allen, Connaughton and Green around him, Antetokounmpo has options when he drives into traffic. The same goes for Holiday and Middleton.

The Bucks have the third-best odds to win the NBA championship and already deserve their slice of respect in the title conversation. But over the last 12 games, they continue to click offensive puzzle pieces into place even as they battle injuries.

Milwaukee goes from imposing to straight-up dangerous with a supporting cast firing on all cylinders.

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