The team with the NBA’s best record, the Milwaukee Bucks, play host to an up-and-coming team from the Western Conference when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit on Friday night. The Bucks have been dominant all season long, racking up an impressive 50-8 record, including a 25-3 mark at home.
Oklahoma City has been a surprise, as the Thunder were expected to be a lottery team but instead are firmly in the playoff field in the Western Conference. The Thunder come in a season-best 15 games over .500 and have won five in a row, suddenly putting themselves in a position to compete for homecourt advantage in a first-round playoff series.
Despite that, the Bucks are 10.5-point favorites at home, with the over/under set at 229.
Nothing To Lose
Oklahoma City wasn’t supposed to keep Chris Paul this season. And it wasn’t supposed to be a team competing for playoff positioning this late in the season. But, don’t tell the Thunder players and coaches, who haven’t bought into the “play for next year” mentality at all this season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been great in his first season with the Thunder, leading the team in scoring at 19.4 points per game while also averaging 6.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals. He had 22 points in the first meeting this season with Milwaukee and should be able to get out and get some easy baskets against the Bucks in this one.
Paul has embraced his role as a veteran leader for the Thunder, earning an All-Star berth while averaging 17.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, a team-best 6.7 assists and 1.5 steals. Steven Adams must play big in this one, especially on the boards. The veteran big man leads the Thunder with 9.5 rebounds per game, but he’ll be battling against a big and deep front line of the Bucks in this one.
Continuing To Roll
The Bucks have embraced their drive for 70 wins, which is good for coach Mike Budenholzer, who needs to motivate his team somehow since it leads the Eastern Conference by eight games. Milwaukee is deep and plays together, and so far, has been able to avoid any major injuries.
Of course, any talk about the Bucks has to start with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the favorite to win the NBA MVP award for the second straight season. Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in nearly every offensive category, including scoring (29.7 points), rebounds (13.7), assists (5.8) and field-goal percentage (.551). Throw in his 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks, and it’s pretty obvious why he’s regarded as possibly the league’s best player.
But Milwaukee is so much more than its superstar. Khris Middleton continues to be a great second scorer, averaging 21.1 points and hitting 43.8 percent from three-point range. Eric Bledsoe brings energy on both ends of the floor, averaging 15.8 points, 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds, while Brook Lopez is solid in the paint (team-high 2.5 blocks per game) but can stretch his offensive game out to the three-point line as well.
Because Milwaukee has been so good all season long, it seems like its due for a letdown. And with a hot Oklahoma City team coming to town, it might be a temptation to pick against the Bucks. But Milwaukee has embraced every challenge this season, and a nationally-televised game against a hot opponent is certainly a challenge.
Look for Antetokounmpo to have a big game and the Bucks to put up a lot of points — they had 121 in their first meeting with the Thunder — to try to avoid another close one with Oklahoma City. I’m taking Milwaukee -10.5 to win this one going away.