It's a strange thing to say about a team that is 31-14, but it's true — teams did not fear playing the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks were winning because most nights they still had the two best players on the floor — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard — but the team's bottom 10 defense and offense that still felt clunky despite its success didn't intimidate teams. The Bucks lost the clear identity they had under Mike Budenholzer. Nobody feared the deer.
In his introductory press conference, Doc Rivers said that had to change.
"We just have to find our identity..." Rivers said. "If you're going to have fear the deer, you gotta fear the deer."
Doc Rivers is officially the new head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and is expected to be on the sidelines for the first time Monday night when the Sixers take on the Nuggets (with new assistants Dave Joerger and Rex Kalamian by his side). There is no chance Milwaukee's management makes a mid-season coaching change without its two stars being okay with it. If Antetokounmpo and Lillard wanted Adrian Griffin to stay, he'd still be the coach. Neither of them has yet to speak in detail to the media about the coaching change, although Antetokounmpo said he did not know the change was coming.
However, Rivers spoke briefly to the team on Friday and Pat Connaughton talked about what was said and the team's attitude with Eric Nehm of The Atheltic.
"He said a few sentences, and they were powerful. He talks about just being able to have that identity that we should have as the Milwaukee Bucks. You talk about the talent that we have on the team, teams should be a little bit more afraid to play us. I think right now, with the way our defense has been playing, the way we've kind of been up and down in games specifically — I know we have a great record — I don't think teams have really been worried about coming in and playing us whether it's at home or on the road.
"So, making sure that we have that chip on our shoulder that we've had for a while, you know? Since l got here six years ago, we've played with a chip on our shoulder, and teams knew it was gonna be tough when they were playing the Bucks. I think that was a great start for him as a leader, and I think everyone's bought into that."
Under Coach Bud, the Bucks' identity was clear — defense first. Specifically protecting the rim at all costs and getting back in transition. It's that transition defense that has been the most glaring issue, but the Bucks defense is where Rivers knows he needs to start.
"You're correct about the defense," Rivers said. "I sat in the stands last night and saw some of it. We have to get on the same page. Our language, and our communication defensively, we have to get that right."
Of note, Rivers said multiple teams contacted him about returning to the bench, but he turned them down. What made the Bucks different?
"You know the answer, Giannis. Dame," Rivers said.
Can he get that duo to the NBA Finals, which is the bar to clear in Milwaukee? That remains to be seen. But you can bet the Bucks playing in April will have more of an identity than we have seen in the first half of this season.