MILWAUKEE – From solo workouts in an empty gym to a standing ovation in a sold-out gym, from soulful drives around the city at night to satisfying drives to the basket Friday, Jabari Parker – finally – was back.
Three hundred and fifty-nine days had come and gone since Parker had participated in an NBA game for the Milwaukee Bucks, a stretch even longer than the first time he ruptured and rehabbed the same left anterior cruciate ligament in his same left knee.
That one cost him 317 days, from the middle of December in his rookie season to the start of his second in 2015-16. Which means Parker has been hurt and hopeful more than he’s been happy or helpful to a team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2014 to play opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee front line.
That’s where they were against the New York Knicks at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, for much of Parker’s 14 minutes and 48 seconds (the Bucks’ medical staff had him limited to 15, max). It’s a tandem that is going to have to click if Milwaukee hopes to reach its goals of a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference and, in the playoffs, advancing to the conference semifinals.
If only the teamwork and chemistry would stop getting so significantly interrupted.
Parker looked eager, bouncy and only a time or two tentative against the Knicks, subbing in for the first time at 5:25 of the opening quarter. The crowd of 18,717 welcomed him onto the court with their applause and Parker acknowledged them by scoring seven points. He hit his first shot, a jumper from the right baseline, then appeard to lack a little lift when he tried a reverse slam.
When he broke out and took a long outlet pass from Khris Middleton, Parker had to slam on the brakes before finishing with a layup. The knee held. The crowd exhaled.
“I just wanted to stay composed,” Parker said later, reviewing his night. “Not trying to get carried away. Trying to stay right. Pretty much distracted, cuz I heard the crowd. I had to calm down and kind of teach myself like, you’ve still got to play. You’ve still got to show the people out there [what] you were working so hard [for].”
Parker’s minutes leash dictated that he wasn’t around when the game was decided. Tied at 90-90 from the 2:00 minute mark of the fourth, Antetokounmpo eventually put Milwaukee up with 1.9 seconds left with a spinning, long-armed, left-handed layup past Enes Kanter. Then the Bucks got Tim Hardaway Jr., who’d shot 2 for 10 to that point, to miss one more from 30 feet.
Parker watched the drama at the end of an otherwise grinding game from the side. But in time, assuming the knee repair holds, he will be on the floor for such moments, even in the middle of them.
“Only way to go here is goin’ up,” he said after finishing with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. “Can’t be below any point that I’ve been at any stages of these few months. Anything I do from this point on is to go up, and it’s a blessing. ... Any opportunity I get, it beats being on the couch for three months at a time.”
Parker has missed 144 of a possible 297 games with his injuries, either of which could have spelled ruin – or still could – for his budding career. He was playing at a near-All-Star level (20.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 36.5 3-point pg) when he got hurt, without contact, against Miami last Feb. 8.
Facing another year of monotonous and grueling rehab work, far away from cheers, bright lights or competition with anyone but himself, Parker doubled down on the things that got him through his first comeback. Writing about it in a piece posted by The Players Tribune on Friday, Parker explained that his faith grew deeper, his anger buoyed him through much of his morning-and-evenings regimen, and the late-night drives in his ’64 Cadillac Coupe De Ville kept him centered through the ordeal.
“It went quick, because I got lost into the process I was having,” Parker told NBA.com Friday.
It did not go quick for the Bucks. In Parker’s absence, they crammed in their second playoff appearance without him (he missed their first-round battles with Chicago in 2015 and Toronto last spring). They replaced the only coach he’d known as a pro, Jason Kidd, with interim Joe Prunty.
Antetokounmpo blew up as one of the NBA’s hottest new stars. Eric Bledsoe arrived in trade as the team’s new point guard. Meanwhile, Parker failed to negotiate a contract extension to stay with the Bucks. That gives him only a few months to fit back into the team’s rotation, make a difference and demonstrate his value heading toward restricted free agency in July.
To this point, the Bucks are 68-85 in the regular-season games Parker has played for them, 76-68 in the ones he has not. But there have been too many other moving pieces in Milwaukee in that time to rate him on record alone.
What matters for Antetokounmpo, Prunty and the rest is how well the 6-foot-8, 246-pound Parker blends in and complements what the others are doing.
As a wingman to the Greek Freak, Parker has a game better suited to pounding down low, while offering another shooter with decent range for Antetokounmpo’s kick-outs. Defensively, he matched up against some of the bigger Knicks, including Kristaps Porzingis, Kanter and Michael Beasley.
The Bucks were without guard Malcolm Brogdon, the 2017 Rookie of the Year who will miss six to eight weeks after suffering a partially torn left quadriceps tendon Thursday at Minnesota. Brogdon’s exit just as Parker returns is cruelly reminiscent of last season, when Middleton came back from hamstring surgery in Game 51, the same night Parker went down.
Handing off an injury baton is no way to prep for postseason success, but the Bucks feel they have sufficient time to set themselves up.
“The potential is big,” Antetokounmpo said. “He can be a top 15, top 20 player in this league, so just having a guy like that next to you [helps]. He’s a big threat. Just having Jabari out there, the defense is going to pay attention to him. So when they pay attention to him, they pay less attention to me, to Khris, to Bledsoe.”
Said Middleton, “I’m proud of him. That’s tough. To go through what he went through twice and come back and play like nothing’s ever happened, that’s great. I know there a lot going through his mind, but he did a great job of just going out there and playing basketball.
“It is special. He’s one of our best players. He’s one of the key pieces who can take us farther than we’ve been. So having that means putting smiles on everybody’s faces.”
Whatever anxiety the Bucks have about the fragility of the tissue and grafts in Parker’s repaired knee, that is balanced for the moment by their teammate’s demeanor and perspective. Antetokounmpo said late Friday that they all have learned “patience” from Parker’s challenge, even as he’s made peace with what’s been and what shall be.
As he noted in the Players’ Tribune piece: “What matters to me is not accolades or awards or headlines. That’s just not where I’m at. After injuries and rehabs, what matters to me is what I can control. What matters to me is going after what I love and then working as hard as I can to protect it.”
It matters to Milwaukee, that’s for sure.
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