This is why you can lose a basketball game and have it immediately turned into a referendum on your resident superstar’s future whereabouts and your franchise’s ability to thrive or fail in a smallish NBA market.
This is why rivals in the Eastern Conference can stride purposefully toward a meeting in the conference semis or finals without knees knocking, and why other coaches might not sweat out major adjustments or some new wrinkle by the Milwaukee Bucks.
This is how you don’t “register much on the national thrill scale” and wind up going head-to-head with soap operas and “Matlock” reruns at playoff time.
The Bucks’ embarrassing performance Tuesday in their 122-110 defeat by the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of their first-round series at the Disney campus in central Florida wasn’t some fluke or momentary misstep. It was a snapshot of who and what their team is right now.
Which is a far cry from who the Bucks were for most of the not forgotten-but-gone 2019-20 regular season. And, while we’re at it, for the season before that and change.
Milwaukee and its fans can say it’s only one game. They can claim that the Bucks’ superior talent, size and experience will assert itself four times, quickly and completely, before this is over. They might be correct, too, since No. 1 seeds rarely lose series against No. 8 seeds. (For the record, it has happened just five out of a possible 72 times since the league’s current format was set in 1984).
Still, the Bucks face the task now of winning four of six, something they haven’t done since early March. And that’s more than a calendar trick based on the NBA’s pandemic shutdown.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, coach Mike Budenholzer and the rest were 52-8 on March 1, halfway through a set of back-to-back games that wrapped in Miami. Since then, starting with a 16-point loss to the Heat, they have gone 4-10. That includes a 3-5 mark in the bubble’s seeding games, plus Tuesday’s stunningly bad showing against the Magic.
And no, it didn’t have anything to do with Orlando getting to play, ahem, in/near Orlando. Nobody has home games in this year’s bracket, no matter how desperately the league’s No. 1 overall seed appeared to need one.
That was even the theme of some in-arena and Zoom questions afterward. Were the Bucks suffering from not being able to play the first two games of the series back at Fiserv Forum, the friendly confines where they went 28-3 before the shutdown?
Wisely, while answering politely, none of them fully took the bait on a topic that every team and player in the bubble could use as an excuse. No need for further embarrassment. Forty-eight minutes was enough.
Milwaukee fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter and 18 in the second. Its biggest lead: 8-2. It trailed for roughly the final 40 minutes, each narrowing of the gap followed by a miss, a defensive lapse or a turnover, Orlando separating again and again.
In short, the Magic did to the Bucks what the Bucks were expected to do and should have done to the Magic. And anyone who has been paying attention to Milwaukee’s meandering ways of late was surprised only by how little the body twitched when kicked.
“I don’t think our group underestimated Orlando,” Budenholzer said. “They’re a very good team. They’re very well-coached. They’ve got a lot of good players. They’ve got weapons.”
Coach-ese aside, along with the fact that the guy on the Magic bench, Steve Clifford, is aces at his job, if Orlando had that many weapons, it would not have shown up for the playoffs with a 32-39 record. It at least would have passed the undermanned Nets for the No. 7 seed the previous two weeks.
It’s important to credit Orlando for what it do so well Tuesday. From Nikola Vucevic’s All-Star production as a inside-outside threat who bedeviled Bucks center Brook Lopez to Gary Clark’s surprise work as a Giannis defender chipping in 15 points. The Magic even thrived with Evan Fournier, normally their second-leading scorer, getting shut out until the final minutes, the outcome decided.
But let’s face it, when a presumed title contender falls on its face like this to start its postseason, the loser gets the attention. Not that this is news by the classic definition – Milwaukee has now dropped five consecutive playoff games, dating back to its elimination by Toronto 15 months ago.
Fact is, that delayed sweep (after the Bucks led the Raptors 2-0 in the East finals) haunts Milwaukee as a turning point. Opponents and fans saw things in what Toronto and coach Nick Nurse took away from Antetokounmpo in winning those four games. How the Bucks seemingly took their medicine without altering too much. How throwing up a wall in front of the Greek Freak dared the others to beat you, and how they didn’t.
Going 116-39 the past two seasons is starting to feel like a parlor trick with no staying power. We’ve seen it before from team’s with unique talents or styles, and the Bucks with Antetokounmpo and dare-them-to-miss drop defense certainly qualify as that.
Charles Barkley talked about it on the Inside the NBA TNT set, that Milwaukee can run up a gaudy record when facing teams randomly in December, January and February. That changes in the playoffs, where the opponents are good and coaches lock in over five, six or seven games.
OK, so the Michael Jordan Bulls never got solved while running that triangle attack year after year. But remember George Karl’s Seattle teams, with what back then was a novel switching defense? Or the recent Houston teams, so James Harden-centric? The unusual becomes usual, then beatable.
What we witnessed in Game 1 wasn’t the Bucks underestimating Orlando. But it could have been the Bucks overestimating themselves. Antetokounmpo with his heavy usage got to impressive numbers (31 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists) but Vucevic essentially canceled him out and what was left mostly was not good.
The recurring stories the past two years about Khris Middleton being a worthy sidekick for Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe being a borderline third All-Star, look, they need to stop. Those two and Lopez combined for just 34 points on 11-for-32 shooting.
When Markelle Fultz in only his fourth playoff game and first start keeps up with Bledsoe, his Bucks counterpart, the repeat postseason disappointment (against Boston in 2018, against Toronto last year) isn’t panning out as planned.
As for Middleton, his up-and-down playoff production – he has scored 11, 12, 9, 30, 6, 14 and 14 points in his last six tests, shooting 40% – he’s been more Batgirl than Robin, showing up to help only occasionally.
The Bucks got outshot across the board, field goals, 3-pointers and free throws. They coughed up 25 points on their 16 turnovers. And their lauded defense, No. 1 in the regular season, got shot over by Magic starters from the arc at a 44%rate (15-for-34).
The Magic didn’t have Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac or Michael Carter-Williams and it didn’t matter. That No. 1 in 'D' rating meant as much Tuesday as the seeding.
“It’s not a good feeling,” veteran guard George Hill said, acknowledging that the Bucks’ mojo or Bango or whatever is off.
They might advance in spite of this showing, but does anyone think Jimmy Butler and the Heat (if Miami advances, too) will be fretting about facing the Bucks in the next round?
Antetokounmpo had talked last week about the Bucks getting overlooked in TV scheduling, tipoff times and NBA fans’ conversations about the elite teams. Congratulations to them, then, because now they’re in position to turn that to their advantage.
By getting underestimated by Orlando.
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