When the Milwaukee Bucks left their hotel on Wednesday for the AdventHealth Arena, they were an elite NBA team from a small market trying to complete a common task: to send a No. 8 en route to the second round of the postseason.
But in the three days since they decided not to go to court to protest excessive police violence, they’ve come to support something far greater than championship aspirations. By virtue of that act of defiance, the Bucks’ post-season journey has evolved from more than one drive to 16 wins in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy. When they finished the Orlando Magic with a 118-104 victory on Saturday to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, they did so as the embodiment of the contemporary professional athlete, one who is as dedicated to the cause of change as they are. their job.
“It was incredible,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo. “We didn’t play, then baseball didn’t play. Then the other NBA teams didn’t play. … The soccer players wouldn’t play, so it’s huge. We have a big platform. People are watching us, and we have to give it right. example and they will follow “.
While it may not have been their primary intention, the Bucks are now the team that carries the mantle of activism in the 2020 NBA playoffs. The Bucks’ promising title race is now equipped with a broader scope, and that makes it even more it is imperative that that title be extended until the end of the following season.
But in the end there is basketball to be played, and by entering Game 5, the Bucks had not yet regained dominance of their pre-COVID-19 game during the regular season. Believers and doubters can find something in the Bucks first round series to bolster their faith or skepticism. For those who watch the Bucks and see the NBA’s best two-way team with the league’s most valuable reigning player and recently crowned Defensive of the Year, Game 1 hiccups against Orlando are no longer a premonition of the Toronto Raptors game. . 1 defeat to Orlando last spring. The Raptors were champions nine weeks later. And for those who don’t see the same Bucks team that made it through the regular season, an unexceptional performance against the Magic in the wake of an uninspiring list of seeded matches didn’t do much to allay that doubt.
After that Game 1 defeat to Orlando at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the Bucks players and staff determined that their approach might have depended too much on deliberate game planning at the expense of simply adhering to their principles. For example, just because a long-range shot attempt by Magic guard Markelle Fultz is a good result for the Bucks defense, doesn’t mean the defenders should give him unlimited space. That space can equip a young player like Fultz with comfort and safety, and that comfort and safety can translate into opportunity and execution.
The Bucks responded by simply being themselves: picking up the ball earlier and more aggressively, even if the ball carrier has a suspicious shot. The group stopped seeing Magic as a collection of opposing players, each with their own scouting ratio, and more as a unit that could be contained if the Bucks ran their formula of ball-pressure and paint isolation.
On Saturday, the Bucks protected the lane with authority, as Orlando picked up just 32 points in the paint – his regular season average was 45.4 per game. Milwaukee defenders blocked penetration and on occasions when Magic ball handlers made forays inside, they were quickly pushed back by multiple bodies. This was a trend reported in the last few games. The result: four straight wins in which the Bucks lost just 98.8 points per 100 possessions – the highest score among playoff teams.
Offensively, the Bucks aren’t at full throttle yet, but they’re making progress. They got most of what they wanted: only 12 of their 88 shooting attempts on Saturday were midrange. Antetokounmpo was his usual model of efficiency (28 points, 11 of 17 field goals, 3 of 6 from long distance). Khris Middleton continued his upward trajectory with 21 points, but also worked as a creator against an aggressive Orlando blitz. His role as director is essential to Milwaukee’s prospects.
For a dominant dominant suit like Milwaukee that has won more than 80% of its games before the bubble, balancing core identity with game strategy can be fraught with these kinds of tensions. In each round, the Bucks will face another series of puzzles that will test that identity. If they try to solve that specific problem with a specific adaptation, will it compromise that core identity to an unhealthy degree? This question will be amplified in the Milwaukee conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat.
What appeared to be a three-team race for Eastern Conference supremacy now has a formidable fourth candidate: Miami. A scan of Heat’s robust rotation reveals the reason: a two-way shooter who can beat you one-on-one (Jimmy Butler), a versatile and big man who can create for any teammate and defend any position (Bam Adebayo), and a prober to the point guard who at his best looks like Steve Nash (Goran Dragic).
The Heat put a lot of long-range shots on the floor (they finished second in the NBA in 3-point shooting rate and set the Bucks on fire in the regular season from over the arc with 55 buckets in three games) and their supporting cast runs deep into ball skills (Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro). The athleticism of the Heat allows them to throw any number of defensive schemes against opponents. Aside from Toronto and Boston, no NBA defense has changed more effectively than Miami, according to data from Second Spectrum.
“It’s going to be a great show,” Milwaukee center Brook Lopez said. “Obviously they have a lot of talented players, but even beyond that they play so hard every single minute they are on the pitch, whoever is on the pitch. So we absolutely have to go out and match or surpass him., And that’s something this team has always done. and it was built to do. It’s going to be a fun series. I’m happy to be a part of it and can’t wait for it to start. “
Any team that has ever completed a regular season but has yet to meet expectations collects an albatross or two along the way. The Heat will not be an indulgent opponent. Miami’s arsenal of long, smart defenders made Antetokounmpo ineffective in both isolation and pick-and-roll actions during the teams’ three fights this season (the only place he hurt the Heat was in transition. ). The secondary direction of Middleton and the penetration of Eric Bledsoe will be fundamental to decongest the Milwaukee half-field.
And on the other side of the ball, the Bucks will face the same Miami test presented to them by Orlando and Nikola Vucevic, the Magic big man, who drained 18 triples in five first-round games. What shooting attempts are the Bucks willing to live with? Sometimes, that question will be asked with great force by Heat shooters, including Kelly Olynyk, Miami’s springy center, who will most likely challenge Lopez to venture from his perch in the paint by throwing 3s from the perimeter.
It is entirely possible that the Bucks will pay a price for their belief that cutting the likes of Butler and Dragic out of the paint is the number 1 through 10 priority. The same could be true of their inability to find their own way to. the basket against the Heat’s active wave of defenders and aides that keeps the offenses guessing.
Yet the Bucks have enough evidence that their winning design can be effective, even if they have to balance form with function. They will also carry the weight of the moment as the team that gave birth to something unprecedented in professional sports. The world got to know the Bucks this week and will be watching them with intent as a result. The further they advance, the brighter the spotlights.