The top of the standings is where the Milwaukee Bucks have finished at the end of the past two regular seasons in the Eastern Conference.
However, through the first five games of the 2020-21 campaign, the Bucks find themselves off to a slow start, at 2-3. Like last season, the Bucks alternated wins and losses through five games; but the Bucks were 3-2, before eventually going on an 18-game win streak. This season, Milwaukee is under .500 through five games for the first time since 2015-16, the last time the team missed the playoffs.
The Miami Heat got revenge in Milwaukee's most recent loss on Wednesday, winning 119-108 without All-Star Jimmy Butler (right ankle sprain), after the Bucks torched the Heat on Tuesday by 47 points while setting the NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a single game with 29.
As a new addition to the organization, point guard Jrue Holiday's first five games have produced an assortment of different finishes.
Milwaukee has won two blowouts, beating Miami and the Golden State Warriors, on Christmas.
The Bucks followed up the big victory against the Warriors with a bad loss at the New York Knicks on Sunday. Now, the Bucks come off of a loss to Miami in a game that they led by 14 points in the second half; one of Milwaukee's losses to the Heat in the playoffs came in Game 3, when the Heat won despite a 14-point second-half deficit.
Even with all of these early examples, we don't fully have a grip on who these current Bucks are. They're still trying to mix in new pieces after their recent postseason exits in the East finals and semifinals with center Bobby Portis, shooting guard Bryn Forbes, small forward Torrey Craig and point guard D.J. Augustin.
"I can speak for my team and for myself: I really feel like us having this different variety of teams and games really helps us. You get to see a lot of different things early," said Holiday, who ended with 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting on Wednesday.
"Even just having a back-to-back in a playoff-type atmosphere, early, is very, very good for us," he continued, "so just being able to grow from this, go back and watch film and see the things we did wrong. But most importantly, it's gonna be the teams that can grow quickly and fast together and get this started from the beginning."
Leader of the pack
On a night when Antetokounmpo racked up his 19th career triple-double, ending with 26 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals, it wasn't enough on Wednesday.
Antetokounmpo has made it clear that he'll continue to lead by example. But is that the best approach?
"I'm not patient. I just go give 100 percent on playing defense," Antetokounmpo said following the loss in Miami. "I try to play the right way on offense. I try to play hard. I don't try to save energy. I save energy after the game."
An example of this was when Bucks players were in and out of the practice facility on Dec. 20 for individual workouts.
With less than a week to go before the regular-season opener, coach Mike Budenholzer noticed his superstar player drenched in sweat in the midst of an intense session.
"Giannis, this is enough, you've been here for an hour and a half," Budenholzer told Antetokounmpo. "You've got to go home."
Even after inking a fresh contract and collecting a second MVP trophy, Antetokounmpo told himself, "It's about now."
The Bucks were preparing to open the season at Boston, before returning home to play the Warriors on Christmas Day.
"I know that you can have the mentality of, 'OK, save a little bit for tomorrow.' No, it doesn't go that way. You work as hard as you can today. The same thing with the regular season. We go as hard as we can in the regular season," Antetokounmpo explained. "We're not saying in Game 1 like it's Game 1; we're not gonna say, 'Oh, we're not gonna give too much because we're worried about the playoffs.' We might not be in the playoffs if we don't play hard. It's not guaranteed."
Antetokounmpo is still searching for a groove during these first handful of games, with his early averages down from last season's career-best 29.5 points and 13.6 rebounds to 22.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game so far this campaign. His free throw shooting also has dipped, to 62.2%.
Everyone is confident that he'll be fine, though.
Consistency is key
The Bucks have proved they are capable of blowing teams out. The small sample size still shows a strong team, even compared to last season:
Comparing Bucks through five games to last season
2019-20 | 2020-21
W-L: 56-17 | 2-3
Offensive rating: 111.9 | 119.7
Defensive rating: 102.5 | 109.7
Def. rebound pct: 77.5 | 75.4
The problem is that Milwaukee has mixed in uneven performances, as well -- and not just game to game, but quarter to quarter.
This back-to-back series were the first games between the Bucks and Heat since Miami eliminated Milwaukee in the postseason bubble. It's all a part of the process of learning to close out games, according to Milwaukee's leader.
"It comes by games ... playing more games together. Right now, we're figuring one another out," Antetokounmpo said.
As a team, the Bucks shot 39.2% from the field on Wednesday, with All-Star small forward Khris Middleton going cold with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting, following a hot individual start to the season.
After the Bucks took a 72-58 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter, they were outscored 39-36 as a team by the Heat trio of Tyler Herro, Avery Bradley and Goran Dragic for the rest of the game. The Bucks only made 31.7% of their final 41 shots in last 20 minutes of game, with Middleton and Holiday combining to go 0-for-11 from the field.
It wound up being a 29-point turnaround at one point in the second half. Inside the locker room, guys know what they have to fix to get on track, although it hasn't been so clear to outsiders looking in.
"We need to be more consistent. We need to be better. But I think there's positives where we played well for big stretches of games, and we've just got to extend those," Budenholzer said. "We've got to be better for more of the 48 [minutes], and that's what it takes."