BOSTON – The beast of the East will take to the parquet at 8 p.m. tonight at TD Garden.
And no, it’s not the Boston Celtics – at least not yet.
The East’s top dog through two-plus weeks of the season is Milwaukee, which, under the guidance of new head coach Mike Budelholzer, is the NBA’s only undefeated team at 7-0. Budenholzer is a big reason why.
The Gregg Popovich protégé joined Milwaukee after spending his first five seasons as a head coach with the Atlanta Hawks. He won 60 games with that franchise in 2014-15, with a roster that featured current Celtics star Al Horford.
Budenholzer was long known in Atlanta as a coach who was willing to experiment with new systematic concepts on the court. Brad Stevens says that some of Budenholzer’s experiments from last season in Atlanta are now benefiting the Bucks this season in Milwaukee.
“Last year, I thought he was doing a lot of cool stuff in Atlanta, and he stuck with it in a lot of ways (in Milwaukee), and it fits this group so well,” Stevens said after Boston’s morning shootaround. “Where he used to play with a post running down the floor, now he plays 5-out running down the floor. And again, he started it last year and then it just fits. It’s a seamless fit with this group.”
That’s because Milwaukee is loaded with shooting ability, and now that ability has been unleashed. The team has rapidly morphed from one of the NBA’s lowest-volume 3-point teams to one of its highest-volume 3-point teams.
The Bucks enter tonight’s game leading the league in 3-point makes per game, with an absurd average of 15.6. The next-closest team, the Houston Rockets, makes an average of 13.8 3s per game.
Last season, Milwaukee ranked 27th in the league with an average of 8.8 made 3-pointers per game.
“They can all shoot,” Stevens said of the Bucks. “And then (Khris) Middleton and (Brook) Lopez are just killing people from behind the line.”
Middleton has made 54.9 percent of his 3s this season, which is the top mark in the league among volume 3-point shooters. That’s better than Stephen Curry (52.9 percent). That’s better than J.J. Redick (39.0 percent). That’s better than everyone who would be expected to be ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Lopez, a 7-foot center, has also been dangerous from long distance, although not quite as dangerous as Middleton. Lopez is making 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers and is averaging 2.4 makes from long distance per game. The latter mark is tops in the league among centers.
Together, Middleton and Lopez are combining to take 13.6 treys per game, and they’re making an average of 6.4 of them. To put that into perspective, there are four teams in the league that are averaging less than 9.0 made 3s per game.
Milwaukee’s new infatuation with the 3-point line has caused great concern for opposing defenses, and that wlill continue tonight with Boston’s. Milwaukee’s increase in and improvement of 3-point shooting has opened up the floor for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to attack the rim.
“When you have 24 feet to guard, when you have to be out in their air space at 24 feet, it makes it easier to drive the ball,” said Stevens. “It’s easy to say you don’t want to give up layups and 3s, but that’s hard to do, especially against a team that’s this good offensively.”
Jaylen Brown, who is questionable for tonight’s game with a sore right foot, says that physicality will play a key role in Boston’s attempt to contain Milwaukee’s 3-point happy offense.
“Being physical on both aspects of the ball,” he said while explaining how to break Milwaukee’s rhythm. “Contesting shots. Making them take the shots that we want them to take, and go from there.”
The numbers say that Boston is more than capable of doing just that tonight. It enters this matchup with the league’s top defense, which is buoyed by what has appeared to be a 3-point shield; the Celtics have limited opponents to a league-worst 27.4 percent clip from beyond the arc this season.
Truthfully, though, they have yet to face off against a 3-point machine like Milwaukee this season. These Bucks, behind Budenholzer’s lead, are a different breed than the group Boston ousted from the postseason six months ago.