Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 28 points with 17 rebounds as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Orlando Magic, 119-104, to close out the first-round playoff series in five games. The Bucks advance to face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Here are three takeaways from the Bucks’ series-clinching victory:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t do everything
By everything, I mean provide so much physicality and aggressiveness. A favorite to repeat as Kia Most Valuable Player, Antetokounmpo does do all the other stuff Milwaukee needs, from scoring to rebounding to passing to exhorting teammates from the sidelines when he plays his typical short minutes. But those minutes were held down in Game 5 by foul trouble, the result of contact at both ends.
That can’t continue in the next round, or the round after that if Milwaukee advances. Not if he and the Bucks expect to reach The Finals. There’s no current NBA superstar who has to navigate whistles when he fails to modulate his intensity quite like Antetokounmpo. He fouled out of five games in the regular season and had to play another seven with five personals.
Conspiracy theorists might contend that Antetokounmpo’s profile is so high, and his value to audience share so great, that the officials will adjust how they ref his games. Milwaukee better not count on that. Even if his new Kia Defensive Player of the Year award gets him some slack, Antetokounmpo’s defensive fouls aren’t typically the problem. It’s the ones he picks up at the other end, barreling into the “walls” so rapidly erected in front of him or getting used by floppers the way D.J. Augustin did in Game 5. Until he gets full “superstar treatment” around the league, he must avoid early or heavy foul trouble.
2. Steve Clifford’s job should be safe
Remember, the other three East teams that dropped first-round series now have coaching situations very much in flux. Philadelphia and Indiana fired Brett Brown and Nate McMillan, respectively, while Brooklyn considers interim guy Jacque Vaughn just another candidate in its search. Clifford should be free from that sort of stress after snagging Game 1 from the No. 1 seed and keeping his group focused and fighting back right up the series’ 20th quarter.
Orlando went through this last spring, beating Toronto in the series opener before getting swept. But the Magic improved their numbers against the Bucks -- a points differential of 9.2 vs. 14.4 against the Raptors, and a boost in offense (101.9 rating from 95.8 last year) while holding steady on defense (111.5 both series).
Clifford’s arrival two summers ago was met with a collective meh from a lot of Magic fans, who had hopes for a splashier hire. But neither Scott Skiles (2015-16) or Frank Vogel (2016-18) got a budding roster to the postseason, while Clifford has done it twice. Let’s not forget, either, that Aaron Gordon, Michael Carter-Williams, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba all were unavailable vs. the Bucks. Meanwhile, the development of young players is clear, none more than once-maligned, now-serviceable point guard Markelle Fultz, who just turned 22.
3. Milwaukee created its own pressure and handled it
The Bucks did more than take a bold stand for their community when they decided not to play Game 5 Wednesday as a protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha (about 30 miles south of Milwaukee). They risked alienating fans who disagreed with the move, and might have created a huge distraction for themselves from the basketball task at hand.
It’s an emotional time in an emotionally trying bubble environment. The Bucks, in the 72 hours from their decision not to play Wednesday till tipoff Saturday, arguably got more media attention than they had all season. Even with a limited on-site media gaggle, whether in person or on Zoom calls, the players and coach Mike Budenholzer suddenly had on their plates a whole lot more than Xs & Os and roster updates.
What seems to have happened is that the decision the Bucks made to forfeit, walk out or (as it turned out when fellow NBA players joined in) simply postpone games actually has drawn them closer together. Not that they weren’t a tight bunch prior to last weekend’s shooting. But any growth they might feel as men, apart from beating the Magic or prepping for the Heat, could benefit them in their locker room and on the court.
The Bucks played great, defensively stifling the Magic, dominating the paint, controlling the boards. They led by as much as 21, but had gas in the tank to pull away again late when Orlando got within six points.
Most of all, in the stilted, artificial, repetitive world of the Disney bubble, they found a way to escape virtually and feel good about themselves, by addressing a social issue vital to them and to their franchise’s city and state. Rather than derailing them, the team’s stance might provide a little extra gravity and push to their championship pursuit.
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