The Milwaukee Bucks of fall and winter were a thing of basketball beauty. Giannis Antetokounmpo was once again building his MVP résumé, while Khris Middleton was continuing to establish himself as one of the NBA’s most versatile scorers, reliable from anywhere on the floor.
Watching a fast break conducted by Antetokounmpo was one of the best eight seconds in basketball. The offense flowed around Antetokounmpo’s talent, finding the right guy for the right shot at the right moment. The defense was its own brand of choreography, the way the Bucks moved as a unit with the singular goal of cordoning off the lane. They won 53 of their 65 games and had the best point differential in the league by an incredible margin.
There’s evidence that muscle memory starts to fade in approximately 10 weeks and is lost entirely in 20 weeks. That’s the precise amount of time between the Bucks’ final game before the season’s suspension and their first seeding game in the bubble. Other than a quick flash here and there since the restart, there have been few remnants of the body of work they produced before COVID-19 hit the NBA. They look like a pretty good 48-win team that takes care of its business against the dregs of the league but struggles to find shots against competent defenses.
Down 3-0 to the Miami Heat and facing elimination on Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the Bucks have one last desperate opportunity to reclaim whatever ingenuity propelled them through one of the most efficient seasons in NBA history. They’ll have to summon that defense to contain Jimmy Butler, and will have to unclog their offense to free up the league’s reigning MVP, who is listed as questionable, should he play. Over the next week, they’ll have to do it for 192 minutes against a Heat team that knows what it wants to do on just about every offensive and defensive possession.
Antetokounmpo is like an object that must remain in motion to be lethal. This Giannis has been too stationary too often. The Bucks and Antetokounmpo thrive in the open floor, but time and again in this series, the Bucks have put on the brakes. Miami’s transition defense has been strong, but since when have Antetokounmpo or the Bucks cared that three diligent defenders are backpedaling the 65 feet between them and the basket? If a couple of defenders got back and a teammate was pushing the ball, he would drag a poor, unsuspecting defender into the post for an early seal.
But for the past three games, the hesitation has been stymying the offense, both on the break and in the half court. If Antetokounmpo is considerably less than 100% after turning his right ankle in Game 3, or inactive, this problem could be even more challenging, if not insurmountable.
Antetokounmpo’s arrival as the league’s MVP has coincided with his mastery of the art of drawing defenders — and knowing exactly what to do next. At his best, which was almost always this season, Antetokounmpo made the smartest play against the help defense, whether that was a straight line drive, a spinning drive, a pass or some other athletic invention his body cooked up.
In the postseason, those plays occur with alarming infrequency and less confidence, often with lesser results when they do. Putting Antetokounmpo in motion off the ball and getting him chances closer to the basket with the ball is imperative.
There are faint visions of this vintage Bucks/Antetokounmpo offense — a clever set off an inbounds during the frenetic comeback in Game 2 that had him slipping screens twice before diving to the hole off the second.
Impulse control has been an issue throughout the series. According to Second Spectrum data, only one player attempted more 3-pointers off the dribble and hit them at a lower rate this season (Spencer Dinwiddie), yet Antetokounmpo has taken nine such shots during the series and made two. Antetokounmpo has progressed as a perimeter shooter, but the instant he rises behind the arc for a shot off the dribble, he ceases to be the most dominant basketball player in the world and instead becomes Andrew Wiggins. Overall, he’s only 3-for-19 on jump shots in the series.
The Bucks’ defense has improved, and the Heat haven’t gotten a particularly high-quality diet of shots. Milwaukee still needs to negotiate how faithfully it sticks to its scheme of walling off the paint, even if the Bucks leave themselves vulnerable to the Heat’s arsenal of proficient long-range shooters. They got burned by the likes of Kelly Olynyk in Game 2 and have been the victim of some other performances that far exceed expectations.
There’s been a lot of consternation about the management of Antetokounmpo’s minutes. He has averaged 35.7 minutes per night — he and Jimmy Butler are tied for the series high. But desperate times call for desperate measures, the argument says. Isn’t the purpose of load management in the regular season to maximize Antetokounmpo’s usage when the games matter most?
Antetokounmpo has recorded a minus-34 over the three games. The problem isn’t the lost 15 minutes when Antetokounmpo sat when he could’ve played; it’s the 107 minutes the Bucks have been ravaged when he’s been on the court. “The food is so terrible — and in such small portions,” the old quip goes.
Legitimate question marks exist with regard to the rotation and matchups, but the primary problem is not the substitution pattern — it’s a lack of aggression and pace irrespective of which five-man unit is on the court.
The Bucks’ set of circumstances is unique. They were sniffing 70 wins and running away with the East, then a historic pandemic hit that abruptly suspended the season. Four months elapsed — a period longer than the end of the NBA Finals and the beginning of the preseason — before the regular season resumed. After a bumpy first couple of weeks in the bubble during which a Bucks team that relies on rhythm and timing can’t find much of either, Jacob Blake was shot by police less than an hour from Milwaukee. The event consumed the NBA, but the Bucks in particular. They initiated a three-day boycott of the postseason that rippled through the NBA and the sports world. Though the Bucks earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs — historically an enormous benefit for NBA teams — the Bucks play on the same floor night after night.
Given all that occurred, as well as what didn’t for four months, perhaps it’s not a surprise Milwaukee looks very little like the elite team that showcased a rare superstar with a supporting cast that enthusiastically supported that superstar with winning plays. Now the Bucks have a chance to earn a reprieve, one they’ll have to repeat three more times — with a superstar who might be out of action — against a Heat team that doesn’t appear anything like an underdog, and undoubtedly doesn’t perceive itself that way.
If Antetokounmpo isn’t at full capacity or can’t go at all, the Bucks aren’t the same team. The more dire consideration might be whether they are still the same team, even if he is.