The first-ever In-Season Tournament has reached the knockout stages. This has been really positive for the NBA, adding extra intrigue and added incentive to the players during the regular season. Whilst there are some things to improve on, I feel this has been a win for the league and for Adam Silver. With that in mind, one of the more interesting matchups is the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks.
The Knicks are on a hot streak having won 3-straight and 4 of 5 games, including, a wild 21-point comeback against the Miami Heat which helped them qualify for the latter stages.
The Bucks having acquired Damian Lillard to partner the ‘Greek Freak’ are primed to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference this year, as well as go to Vegas for the Final. Here’s my overview to the Knicks-Bucks Quarterfinal including my prediction.
Overview to the Knicks vs. Bucks Quarterfinal
Brunson is the Knicks star-man, and quickly becoming one of the best and underrated point guards in the league. Brunson is 4th in the NBA in 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage. He’s coming off a huge November: 26.6 PPG 5.6 APG and 49% from the field, and 49% from 3. Fantastic numbers across the board. It’s quite incredible how efficient he is. Aside from his shooting, Brunson has an excellent turnover ratio of 5 assists to under 2 turnovers.
Furthermore, Brunson loves taking on the Bucks, because he simply lights them up. He put them to the sword with 45 points on 17-30 shooting in the Knicks loss last month. Last season he put up 44 points in the 9th January matchup.
If the Knicks are to succeed, they need Brunson to continue to dominate proceedings. The Bucks have taken a step back defensively at the Guard spot with Jrue Holiday being traded, which Brunson and the Knicks can exploit.
Julius Randle is looking to redeem himself from a horrendous previous outing against Milwaukee, shooting 5-20 from the floor and an unsightly 1-9 from 3.
However, Randle has been in a rich vein of form recently. In his last three games, he’s been on fire. He notched 25 points and 20 rebounds against Charlotte, followed by 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists against Detroit. Most recently, he neared a triple-double against Toronto with a 20-10-9 outing. He’s been doing better taking advantage of mismatches in his favor and has been getting into the paint more, rather than settling for perimeter shots. This is an area where he can have success against the Bucks.
Randle struggles against Milwaukee, however. With the elite rim protection and length of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s unrivaled power, Randle struggles to impact the game against teams like the Bucks. Julius still switches off on defense, so look for the Bucks to exploit him on the defensive end. Also, look for the Bucks to double-team Randle because he still over-dribbles and turns the ball over. Randle has 29 turnovers in his last 8 games. Averaging 3.3 turnovers for the season- which is far too much. The Knicks have a small margin for error against elite teams, so making smart decisions is imperative.
If the Knicks are to knock out the Bucks, the key is for Randle to be Brunson’s support on the scoring end. Keep the turnovers down, and move the ball quickly when facing double teams.
Defense and Teamwork
Mitchell Robinson is the defensive anchor of the Knicks. He’s averaging 11 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, and leads the NBA in offensive rebounding by a considerable distance. He has an unrivaled ability to give the Knicks second-chance opportunities. He will be vital if the Knicks are to beat the Bucks. How he defends Giannis in the paint will be a key to the matchup.
The Knicks have a considerable bench. Donte DiVincenzo is coming off a game where he matched his career high with 7 3’s in a game, and Josh Hart scored 15 straight points in the third quarter against Toronto. Immanuel Quickley is having a 6-man of the year caliber year averaging 15 points per game off the bench.
Milwaukee has a championship-caliber team with the addition of Damian Lillard. Pairing two future Hall of Famers together, Dame with perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is frightening for teams. As seen by their 70% winning percentage this season as a team. What might be the most frightening aspect of all, is the fact they are still working out their kinks together. It will only get better from here on out.
Lillard is unguardable. He is averaging just under 29 points and 9 assists in his last 10 games, scoring 30 or more in his last four. The Knicks are in a tough spot in how they will choose to defend him. They could try the high-press to avoid Lillard shooting from range. However, that would leave the paint area open for Giannis to feast. It’s a pick-your-poison situation.
Giannis—coming off his triple-double against Atlanta—has been MVP-caliber in his last 10 games. Averaging 30 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1.4 blocks on 63% shooting. Giannis is benefitting from more space than he’s ever had, as well as from a true point guard to help his game even further. Giannis’ shooting percentage is up, as is Lillard’s assist rate.
Good luck defending those two.
Beasley is shooting a career-high 45% from three-point range and is benefitting from all the attention given to Dame and Giannis. There are tons of space for the supporting cast to knock down open shots, especially Beasley—case in point his 16-point, 10-rebound outing in their win against the Heat, where he shot 50% from three.
Cam Payne was an ideal acquisition for the Bucks. He’s the perfect backup PG, and he plays that role for the team to perfection. Spreading the floor and offering something different when Lillard is off the floor.
Brook Lopez is one of my favorite players in the league. Despite being in his mid-30’s, he’s still a phenomenal rim protector, averaging 2.8 blocks per game so far this year. The last time the Bucks played the Knicks in their win 110-105 win, Lopez put up a monstrous 8 blocks. He’s also playing fantastically well on the offensive end, including a stretch where he dropped 28 against the Celtics and 39 against the Wizards.
Whilst Middleton is still working himself back into shape, showing flashes, it’s quite impressive the quality of their depth behind the stars.
Prediction: Milwaukee Advances
The Knicks main issue is they are 2-7 against teams above .500. Whereas, they are unbeaten against teams above .500. Indicating their ceiling. The Knicks are probably one more move away from being a legitimate threat to the top of the East—likely a wing player to ease the scoring load for Brunson. There are rumors abound of a possible move for DeMar DeRozan. In the meantime, it’s probably a little early for the Knicks to topple this Bucks team. It isn’t a great matchup in terms of size for them, as the Knicks struggle against bigger teams due to their overload of two guards on their roster.
Furthermore, Randle and Barrett like to attack the paint, which plays into the hands of Lopez, as evidenced by the 8 blocks he had against them last time.
However, the Bucks are far from perfect. They went from being first in the NBA in opponent’s 3-point percentage last year, down to 16th due to the loss of Jrue Holiday.
Add the fact Jalen Brunson loves to feast against the Bucks. If the Knicks can hit their three-point attempts, they can cause a shock. The Knicks only shot 25% from three in their last game against the Bucks and it was still a close game. I expect it to be equally tight, and the Knicks to be much improved due to their good form.
However, Milwaukee has beaten the Knicks the last seven times, and with Dame and Giannis rounding into form, I expect them to advance in a tight one.