If the Bucks have taken nine tests in the 2019 postseason, they have aced eight of them. Through two rounds, Milwaukee is 8-1.
The team that posted the largest margin of victory in the regular season picked up right where it left off, posting a 15.3 average margin of victory through nine playoff games, slipping up just once versus the Celtics in Game 1 of the second round.
Not only are the Bucks 8-1 straight-up, though, they have also covered eight of nine games against the spread.
Oddsmakers have taken notice. Milwaukee had numerous doubters heading into the playoffs, entering April at +850 to win the NBA title, according to this source here. That was only slightly ahead of the Raptors at +1100 and 76ers at +1300 in the East.
But now they’re +230 to win the championship and huge -300 favorites to beat Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The hesitation from oddsmakers was somewhat understandable if playoff basketball is truly a different beast. No one on the roster has a championship ring – apart from the injured Pau Gasol, who hasn’t and won’t play a game for Milwaukee this year – and Mike Budenholzer’s postseason resume isn’t exactly encouraging.
The farthest his powerhouse Hawks teams made it was the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, where they were swept 4-0 by LeBron James’ Cavaliers. Bud’s Atlanta teams only made it out of the first round twice.
But his revamping of Milwaukee’s tactics, coupled with Jon Horst’s revamping of the roster, have unlocked new levels of greatness from Giannis Antetokounmpo and some of the supporting cast.
To understand just how much Giannis has improved under Budenholzer, just look at his Player Efficiency Rating compared to last year. He recorded an elite 27.3 PER in 2017-18, but skyrocketed to a league-leading 30.9 in his MVP-caliber 2018-19 campaign.
Malcolm Brogdon, who looked strong in his return in Game 5 against Boston, also took a huge jump from 14.3 to 17.8 in Budenholzer’s first year.
Milwaukee, as a whole, went from 7th in the league (107.8) in Offensive Efficiency to 3rd (111.5), trailing only Golden State and Houston. And the Bucks have been ever-so-slightly better on offense in the playoffs at 111.6, while the defense has been downright smothering.
Milwaukee finished the regular season ranked first in Defensive Efficiency at 103.0, yet have improved their NBA-best mark by nearly six points in the playoffs, currently sitting at 97.1 heading into the Toronto series.
Once again, it’s been Giannis leading the charge in the playoffs. He has maintained his scoring average at just under 28 PPG, while upping his 3-point percentage from 25.6% to 32.4% on nearly four attempts per game. Forcing teams to guard him on the perimeter presents an almost indefensible wrinkle for opponents, and it’s seen his efficiency rise even higher to 31.1 PER.
That 31.0 PER threshold is a big one. There are only four names on the list of players who have posted a PER of 31+ in the regular season: Chamberlain, Jordan, LeBron, Steph.
There are more names on the playoff list – the likes of Olajuwon, Leonard, and Kareem — but it’s still short. If Giannis maintains his current level, he’ll finish 12th all-time in PER for a single playoffs.
Of course, the next two series will be the toughest Milwaukee has faced. But the Bucks will be a confident bunch, knowing they took the season series from Toronto 3-1 with Giannis averaging 27 PPG.