In this town, there are just two border battle matchups that matter: Vikings-Packers and Gophers-Badgers. Having these teams in the same divisions creates a sense of rivalry. Think of how many times you’ve heard, “Better dead than red” in regards to the Badgers or a pejorative “cheesehead” lobbed at a Packer fan. Minnesota fans circle these games on the calendar every season.
While Twins-Brewers invites some friendly trash talk and both fanbases travel well, there isn’t the same intensity as these other two. A part of that may be that they play in different leagues. There’s no trophy at stake like there is between the Gophers and Badgers. Certainly the matchup doesn’t share the history of Vikings-Packers although Packer fans consider the Bears a bigger rival.
Then, further down the list is Timberwolves-Bucks. These two teams will face off on Friday night with no fanfare leading up. The Wolves lead the all-time series 29-23 and have outscored the Bucks 98.7-98. Both teams have young and exciting players but don’t yet have the feel of a true border battle.
One reason is that these teams have never played in the same conference, let alone the same division. As a result, they play each other twice per year out of an 82-game schedule. Sure, the Vikings play the Packers twice per year but that’s out of a 16-game schedule.
Hold on, the Lakers and Celtics is arguably the NBA’s greatest rivalry and they don’t play in the same conference.
That’s true. But the Lakers and Celtics have played nine times in the NBA Finals if you count the 1959 Finals matchup when the Minneapolis Lakers faced the Celtics. In order to build an out-of-conference rival, you to have some postseason history.
Even Warriors-Cavaliers is a burgeoning rivalry after meeting in the last two Finals. The fans get into it, the players trash talk, and the games have great intensity.
The Wolves and Bucks have none of these things necessary to build a rivalry to give this meeting a real border battle feel. In 26 years, there are no iconic moments from their meetings with the Bucks. With Lakers-Celtics, Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson come to mind. For Warriors-Cavaliers, you think of the shorthanded Cavaliers falling to the Warriors after building a 2-1 series lead and of course Game 7 of last year’s title when the Cavaliers won.
Yet, none of this means that Friday’s game will be a snoozer. For the first time since Kevin Garnett was in his heyday and Ray Allen was a Buck this matchup will have more excitement. Much like the Timberwolves, the Bucks have a collection of promising young players.
The biggest reason is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 perimeter player and point guard. Affectionately known as “The Greek Freak,” Antetokounmpo has elevated his status from feel-good story to blossoming star. Averaging 23.4 points, nine rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game, Antetokounmpo is having the best season of his career. He doesn’t just fill up the box score; his ability to use his length and athleticism is what makes him such a threat.
Despite shooting 52.3 percent from the field, Antetokounmpo’s weakness is his 3-point shot. He’s a career 28.1 shooter from beyond the arc. For comparison, Ricky Rubio is a 31.3 percent shooter from behind the line. Ideally, you’d force him to take as many 3’s as possible but given his physical tools and ability, that’s no easy task.
The Bucks also have Jabari Parker, the player taken one pick after Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 NBA Draft. While still a bit of a sieve defensively, Parker has rounded into a fine offensive player. He’s efficient, as evidenced by his 49.5 percent and 38.4 percent marks from the field and on 3-pointers. He doesn’t grab a ton of rebounds at just under six per game but is averaging a career-high 2.4 for assists, which is adequate for a big man.
When the Bucks lost starting shooting guard Kris Middleton to injury before the season, they had to adjust. Behind Middleton they had little apparent depth after him. They traded for Michael Beasley but their true revelation has been rookie Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon was a 4-year player at Virginia taken in the second round.
In just 30 games, he’s already establishing himself as a valuable rotation player. He’s hitting on 43.3 percent of his 3-pointers while taking 2.1 per game. Per 36 minutes, he’s grabbing 3.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists, showcasing his other on-court abilities.
It may take two or three years, but Wolves and Bucks could become must see matchups. Once Middleton returns later this year or next, they’ll have great depth at shooting guard. This will set up Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns with a foe 320 miles away that can threaten to match their own talent and athleticism.
The Bucks may be the better team now due to continuity and more reliable veterans, but watching the young players go head-to-head will be the most interesting story of the night. Over time, we could see these two teams build a history together and have those moments that are currently absent.
Sure, if it’s unlikely for Bucks-Wolves to ever become a rivalry on the level of Badgers-Gophers or Packers-Vikings. But it could become a game that invites some friendly trash talk among fans. That would be a step up from not being even a blip on the radars for fans of either team.