December 26, 2014. On the surface, it is a seemingly unimportant date. In actuality, it was the most important day of this Bucks season.
To explain the significance of this date, we need to go back to the preseason, when most Bucks fans were concerned with two things: the development of its young stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker) and Larry Sanders’ return to form.
For the first two months of the season, we all saw this in action. During this time, some wanted to see more of the three players on the floor together and see their production improve, but things seemed to be trending in the right direction.
Then, Dec. 15 happened. Parker fell to the floor awkwardly while attempting a move in the open floor against the Phoenix Suns and with that, his season was over. 12 days later, Larry Sanders played his final game as a Buck against the Charlotte Hornets.
Before the season, these two events would have been near the top of the list of worst case scenarios for the Bucks, turning the season into a miserable failure. Instead, both happened, and many are celebrating a wildly successful season because of the way the team reacted to this adversity — which started with their 30-point road victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 26.
At the season’s outset, new head coach Jason Kidd explained that one side of the ball was going to be more important than the other. “I think the guys understand that defense is where we’re going to hang our hat and offense will come second,” Kidd said to reporters, following the Bucks’ first practice.
The first few months of the season saw the Bucks struggle with some of the intricacies of their new defensive scheme, but things started to become clearer as the new year began. Rotations were crisper. Communication was better. And the Bucks defense became something to fear.
In the season’s first 29 games, the Bucks were the league’s 12th best defense, according to defensive efficiency ratings. From Dec. 26 through the end of the season, the Bucks were the league’s best defensive team.
With minimal personnel changes, the Bucks orchestrated a complete facelift on one side of the ball, moving from one of the league’s worst defenses to one of the best. Despite a later offseason start than most teams, the coaching staff came into this season with a clear goal and the Bucks executed it. That is no small task.
Though the Bucks’ offense leaves quite a bit to be desired, the team’s long, youthful lineup transformed into a fearsome defensive unit that can serve as the base of their identity for years to come.
Dec. 26 might have just become my favorite day of the year.
This is part one of a three-part season recap. Check back Thursday for part two.