As the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, forward Giannis Antetokounmpo remains integral to every plan for success implemented by the Milwaukee Bucks. He not only serves as the team’s undisputed best player, he is its linchpin on offense and defense, their alpha and omega.
But what Milwaukee has built around Antetokounmpo is equally vital to its championship aspirations.
The Bucks raced to the NBA’s best record last season not only because Antetokounmpo developed into a transcendent player, but also because of the complementary pieces that enabled Antetokounmpo to thrive on both ends of the court. Those same components are central to the Bucks’ title hopes this season.
Milwaukee will open the 2019-20 season Thursday at Toyota Center against the Houston Rockets, seeking to take the next step in its collective growth. Of the nine Bucks players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, seven are back in the fold for Milwaukee — including guard Eric Bledsoe, who returned from a rib injury this week and will start the opener.
“He’s a huge piece of what we do,” Bucks swingman Khris Middleton said of Bledsoe. “He’s our floor general out there. He’s the guy that gets everybody involved as a player on the defensive side of the ball too.
“He just helps us hold everything together, lets me do my job, Giannis do his job. Everybody is out there able to do what they do when he’s out there on the floor because how he’s able to create shots for everybody and keeps everybody involved.”
Perhaps the most memorable element of the two Bucks-Rockets clashes last season was how Milwaukee defended Rockets guard James Harden, the league’s two-time scoring champion.
Bledsoe, a dogged defender, earned raves for his role in siphoning Harden into his help defense while also harassing Harden on the perimeter when the moment called for individual defensive might. Bledsoe was reticent to take too much credit for his part in disrupting Harden a season ago.
“At the same time the whole league don’t got Brook (Lopez) and Giannis back there,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve got two amazing rim protectors behind me that if I do slip up and get beat every once in a while, they’re there to have my back. Every team in the league don’t got those two.”
If this preseason served as a precursor of things to come, Harden appears poised to pace the NBA in scoring for a third consecutive season. He averaged 31.2 points in 28.9 minutes per game, shot 46.4 percent from the floor overall and 39.4 percent from behind the arc. By every indication Harden is in his athletic prime, offering a terrifying mix of experience, creativity and sheer skill.
Like the Bucks, the Rockets return a roster virtually intact, excluding one key addition: 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook. The narrative following the Rockets’ acquisition of Westbrook centered on how he would work in tandem with his former teammate in Oklahoma City now that both have developed into ball-dominant guards and earned league MVP honors.
That question won’t be answered on Thursday. What might be revealed is whether the Rockets gleaned any lessons from how the Bucks defended Harden last season.
“Not really, other than they beat us twice and we want to get a win, especially on opening night,” Harden said. “Honestly we’re not focused on any other team. It’s a long season and we’re going to have a lot of different opponents. We’re just focused on ourselves and getting better and trying to find a rhythm and groove that we can get to that everybody is comfortable in.”
–Field Level Media