After scuffling with injuries, the Bucks are once again looking like a league power

There was a moment when it seemed like the wheels in Milwaukee were starting to wobble. The Bucks raced out to a 19-6 start to the season behind the now-customary MVP-caliber play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the persistent two-way excellence of Jrue Holiday and a killer start by Brook Lopez that made the 15-year vet something of an All-Star cause célèbre. Come mid-December, though, the Bucks dipped down into the doldrums, playing sub-.500 ball for about six weeks to fall 5.5 games behind the East-leading Celtics — as close to the play-in bracket as they were to the top spot in the conference.

It wasn’t a mystery why the Bucks were buckling, though: They didn’t really have their team. A sore left knee sidelined Antetokounmpo for seven games and seemed to limit him in others, including his only two single-digit scoring performances of the season. Various illnesses cost Holiday six games, too. Khris Middleton made his season debut during that stretch, re-entering the lineup after spending more than seven months recovering from offseason wrist surgery … but he looked shaky upon his return, alternating strong games with ineffectual performances before going back on the shelf with his own bout of knee soreness and swelling.

Absent All-Stars result in overtaxed complementary pieces, especially when it’s time to create something out of nothing; Milwaukee produced the NBA’s third-worst offense during that span. With the injuries mounting and ominous “rumors about chemistry” swirling, it was reasonable to wonder whether the Bucks — the NBA’s oldest team, just a few months away from huge decisions on Lopez (about to turn 35 and hit unrestricted free agency) and Middleton (who can join Brook by declining his $40.4 million player option for next season, and who turns 32 this summer) — would go from wobbling to spinning out, shaking up the Eastern hierarchy in the process.

“Reasonable” doesn’t mean “right,” though. A funny thing happened while Milwaukee’s stars missed all those games due to injury and illness: They actually, y’know, got healthy. And since they’ve come back together, they’ve offered a pretty strong reminder of why so many people pegged them as one of the favorites to win the title coming into the season.

The Bucks haven’t lost since Antetokounmpo and Middleton returned to the lineup in Detroit on Jan. 23, posting the league’s No. 1 defense and No. 9 offense in that span, according to Cleaning the Glass, and riding an 11-game winning streak into Thursday’s matchup with the Bulls.

Whatever afflicted Giannis’ right knee sure as heck seems to be a thing of the past. The two-time MVP has gone berserk since returning, averaging 37.2 points on 58.4% shooting to go with 13.4 rebounds — oh, by the way, he’s on pace to lead the league in rebounding for the first time — and 5.8 assists in just 33.1 minutes per game.

Antetokounmpo has started making his long balls again, shooting 13-of-38 from 3-point range (34.2%) in this span after missing three-quarters of them for most of the season. Crucially, though, he hasn’t fallen in love with the jumper: 70% of his field-goal attempts since coming back have come in the paint, one big reason why he’s taken more free throws than any other player in the league since his return. Granted, you’d prefer he make more than 62.4% of them — which would be a career-low — but given the sheer tonnage of everything else Antetokounmpo provides, and the metronomic consistency with which he provides it, fretting over free-throw percentage would be like dinging “Guernica” for having a limited color palette. (Besides: It’s not like we don’t have documentary evidence of him making them when it counts.)

At this point, though, you know what Antetokounmpo is going to provide. (“Throw whatever scheme you want at him,” I wrote before the season. “He’s putting up 28-12-6, whether you like it or not.” He is now averaging 32.5, 12.3 and 5.5. My apologies for underestimating you, Giannis.) What’s made the Bucks so overwhelming of late, though, is Middleton shaking off the discomfort of his early December return to rejoin the party in earnest.

The All-Star swingman is coming off the bench for the first time in ages and operating under a minutes restriction, but that hasn’t kept him from operating at a high level. He’s chipped in 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 rebounds in just 19.4 minutes per game since returning — which translates to just under 28.5 points, nine boards and seven dimes per 36 minutes of floor time — to provide the consistent punch that Milwaukee’s second unit was lacking.

That’s crucial for a Bucks team that had been capsizing pretty much whenever Antetokounmpo or Holiday sat down. Small-sample caveats apply, since Middleton’s still yet to crack the 400-minute mark for the season, but in games in which the Bucks’ Big Three have been available, there have been 100 minutes when Middleton and Holiday have played without Giannis, and 30 minutes when Middleton’s played without either, according to PBPstats … and the Bucks are plus-26 in those 130 minutes. Nearly every member of Milwaukee’s rotation has a higher true shooting percentage with Middleton on the floor than when he’s off it.

That’s a big part of why Middleton is such a vital piece to the puzzle: not only what he provides as a secondary scorer alongside Giannis and a crunch-time ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, but how he can serve as a high-volume, high-efficiency life raft for the Bucks’ offense in the few minutes Antetokounmpo rests during the postseason. Stay afloat with the big guy on the bench and dominate with him on the floor, and you’ve got a great chance to win not just games, but rings.

It remains to be seen how long Middleton’s minutes will need to be managed, but his return means that coach Mike Budenholzer now has back the full core four that drilled teams by more than 10 points-per-100 over the last two seasons — and has, in limited minutes this season, picked up right where it left off. What might be most compelling about the Bucks’ roster over the final quarter of the season, though, might be how Coach Bud tinkers with and test-drives fifth options on a roster featuring quite a few interesting ones.

Need to space the floor with some off-the-dribble juice? Go with Grayson Allen, who’s knocking down 40.6% of his 4.8 3-point attempts per game. Want some more size and playmaking? There’s Joe Ingles, who’s shaken off his own return-from-injury rust to average 7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while hitting 39.7% of his threes over the last 15 games. Want a middle path between those two poles that also provides a bit more defense? Call for ol’ reliable Pat Connaughton, one of maybe five Bucks that Budenholzer trusted by the end of Milwaukee’s seven-game war with the Celtics in the second round of last spring’s playoffs, and still one of the most capable reserve wings in the business.

Once he’s back after nursing a sprained right MCL, Sixth Man of the Year hopeful Bobby Portis will provide instant offense off the bench and a viable third big when the Bucks want to super-size. Jevon Carter gives Budenholzer a point-of-attack defensive pest against point guards and smaller scorers; Wesley Matthews can play that role against bigger wings. And the hope is that, when he actually gets on the court after sitting out the first four months of the season looking for a trade and finally getting one last week, Jae Crowder will effectively offer a little bit of all of the above — and, perhaps most importantly, the flexibility to play small-ball power forward, shoot threes, switch screens and unlock the Giannis-at-the-5 lineups that have mostly decimated opponents in recent years.

Options abound, with and without Giannis. (Budenholzer briefly went with a Middleton-at-center lineup against Boston on Tuesday. It got outscored by six points in three minutes; sometimes the pursuit of scientific discovery produces explosive results.) That increased optionality wouldn’t necessarily make the Bucks the favorite heading into a playoff rematch with the Celtics — that Boston took Milwaukee to overtime without four starters was pretty impressive — but it does make them more flexible, more versatile and more dangerous.

The Bucks’ recipe for success rests on being bigger, longer, stronger and tougher than whoever they’re facing. It’s won them more games than any other team over the past five years, it won them a title, and — even without Middleton — it pushed the eventual East champion Celtics to seven games. That recipe hasn’t changed, and thanks to an onset of good health and the arrival of Crowder, they have all of the ingredients again. Last month’s wobbling wheels have given way to a war rig, loaded for bear and ready for battle. What a lovely day.