The Milwaukee Bucks are title contenders if (fill-in-the-blank)

The Milwaukee Bucks are exactly halfway through the 2019-20 regular season.

At 35-6, they’re off to the best start in franchise history, one win better than the 1970-71 team that went on to win the NBA Championship.

Will this version of the Bucks claim the same hardware at season’s end? Or at least make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974?

On the surface level, they’re top-three in the league in offensive rating, No. 1 in defense and their net rating is 11.7, a whole 3.6 points higher than the second ranked Los Angeles Lakers. Their lead in the Eastern Conference is a whopping seven games.

After falling short last season, the team doesn’t appear to care about a 70-win pace or league-leading statistics whatsoever. Each time you have a basketball related conversation with one of the players, it isn’t about their current winning-streak, or all-star voting, the mindset quickly changes to how their latest game, or practice, is preparing them for April, May and June.

“I don’t want to say we think about it too much,” Khris Middleton told reporters in Portland on Saturday night. “We know you can’t win a championship in the regular season. Just to keep playing, man. It’s a long season, we got a long way to go.”

If the Bucks are going to make it to the Finals, they have to continue to grow in all facets of the game. However, here are three things to specifically keep an eye on during the final half of the regular season.

That Mob Mentality

Rotations shrink in the post-season. Coaches who have the assets to rotate in more than 10 players during the regular season, tend to minimize that number to just eight or nine during the playoffs. Without back-to-back games, and travel days being accounted for, the need for rest and management lessens.

However, the Bucks have legitimate depth on their bench. And, if they continue to produce the way they have been, they may have the luxury of playing nine guys solid playoff minutes. It would be huge to minimize the wear and tear on their starters until later rounds.

Currently they have six bench players who average more than 15 minutes per game. That unit is led by veteran guard George Hill, shooting an unprecedented 54 percent from the floor, 51 percent from three and 81 percent from the free throw line.

Second-year man Donte DiVincenzo has caught the league’s attention as well. Despite streaky shooting this season, his defensive prowess, and ability to jump passing lanes has been beneficial for the Bucks. His minutes average (22.7) is a little skewed because he entered the starting lineup when Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe were out with injury, but the experiences he gained were invaluable and his production warranted the opportunity.

Robin Lopez will protect the rim at any given moment, and provide his twin brother Brook with a needed breather. Kyle Korver can shoot his patented high percentage three. Meanwhile, Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova and Sterling Brown are also all dependable substitutes.

Milwaukee has developed so much faith in their bench this season that every time the “bench mob” scores more than 30 combined points in a game, a $500 donation is made to a local non-profit organization.

As long as the these role players are hitting their shots, they’ll prove to be a great compliment to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Especially when Antetokounmpo is double or triple teamed in the paint.

Speaking of “containing” Giannis

San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich is the gold standard for NBA coaches. When his team visited Milwaukee, they took the approach of fouling Antetokounmpo “unintentionally” every time he drove the ball towards the basket.

In total, he shot 18 free throws in 29 minutes.

This season he is shooting 61 percent from the line. When the Spurs tested his abilities, Giannis converted 15 of the 18 attempts. Had he shot closer to his average, the game would have been separated by possession at the end. He won that chess match.

Antetokounmpo has improved his free throw percentage every month this season. Although he is not at his career-best, the relentless work he puts in is showing dividends. In October he shot just 55 percent from the line, in January he’s up to 67 percent for the month. Steady improvement, trending towards effective numbers in the spring.

During a recent episode of The Hoop Collective Podcast with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, it was pointed out how “Hack-a-Shaq” is in the NBA vernacular because of the way it is implemented against a dominant interior force. If a player of Antetokounmpo’s impact doesn’t show the ability to hit free throws consistently, a team will undoubtedly play the odds and put him at the foul line instead of giving up a dunk.

The hosts also pointed out that during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks lost three games by exactly six points. In those losses, Giannis never shot higher than 60 percent from the foul line. In the team’s two wins, he was at 75.

Antetokounmpo will have to continue to prove consistency from the charity stripe.

Khris ‘needs to keep playing like an all-star’ Middleton

Name a more “controversial” player in the league who consistently puts up nearly 20 points and six rebounds per game, plus has eternal trust from the league MVP.

Maybe it’s just #BucksTwitter who can’t decide whether or not they love or hate Middleton? Maybe if his financial compensation wasn’t disclosed to the public he wouldn’t get so much backlash?

In reality, Middleton won’t ever be judged by the numbers he puts up. He’ll forever be compared to the other “sidekicks” in NBA dynamic duos.

The question is whether or not his output can match the output of the rest.

When you think of legitimate NBA title contenders. The Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets instantly come to mind. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden run those teams, respectively. Their No.2’s are Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook.

Where would you rank Middleton among those secondary stars?

However, in his last ten games Middleton is averaging nearly 23 points per game. More importantly, it’s on an efficient 48 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line.

Only Davis is shooting a higher percentage from the floor in that span.

More than likely, Middleton will never be considered to be in the same tier as those other three. Antetokounmpo probably won’t shoot 90 percent from the free throw line for an entire season. And, the Bucks bench will have very untimely bad shooting nights.

But, if these aforementioned trends continue, the combination of an MVP, all-star numbers from Middleton, and solid shooting contributions from the bench, it gives them a great shot at making it one series further than they achieved last season.

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