2020 Playoffs: First Round | Bucks vs. Magic

Giannis Antetokounmpo finding ways to power Bucks through early starts

Somebody's got to open the game slate, and Milwaukee finally seems adjusted to opening act

Already, the Milwaukee Bucks have tipped off three first-round playoff games against Orlando sometime between brunch for West Coast viewers and the early-bird special right there in Florida.

And after handling the Magic on Saturday, 121-107, to take a 2-1 lead in the series, the Bucks will rise and hope to shine again early Monday, facing Orlando in Game 4 in yet another matinee (1:30 ET, NBA TV).

It’s not the ideal schedule, given how players and coaches typically go through their days and peak when the sun goes down. Bio-rhythms, sleep patterns, muscle memory and all that, right? Even when TV demands some daytime weekend games every postseason, those are kept to a minimum.

Not possible, though, with the league’s restart and compressed playoff schedule. In the seeding games, the Bucks — based on Milwaukee time — started games at 5:30 p.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. So far against the Magic, it’s been 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m, noon Saturday and 12:30 p.m. again Monday.

Put to a vote, you’d probably find more NBA players preferring a midnight start to a noon start. But with four games daily in the first round, all televised with minimal conflict, somebody has to go first. That leaves the very real challenge of shifting all of their body clocks.

Imagine if your work schedule bounced from first shift to graveyard shift, then to second, back to first, day-by-day. You might be a little off your game too.

OK, now imagine if you had Giannis Antetokounmpo Euro-stepping his way into your office or plant or store, and then hollering and mean-mugging every so often to celebrate a sale or just make sure you’re awake.

Might help the energy level, right? That’s what the Bucks’ MVP did in this one.

“I was just trying to play hard. Obviously it was the early game today,” Antetokounmpo said after scoring 35 points with 11 rebounds and seven assists, while missing only two of his 14 shots. “Usually we’re not as focused. When the game starts, we’re a little bit lazy.

“So I was just trying to set the tone, play hard, guard my guy, take up the individual challenge, try to be active. Just be all over the place. I knew this game was big for us. We had to do what we did in Game 2.”

The Bucks, caught trying to cruise through the series opener Tuesday, pounced on Orlando with defensive intensity and a more aggressive offense two days later. They did it again in Game 3, using run after run after run to lead by 34 midway through the third quarter.

Managing that lead got a little tricky — the Magic got as close as 12 early in the fourth — but Milwaukee asserted itself to breathe again, no further hiccups.

Orlando had some excuses, losing starting James Ennis at 5:39 of the second quarter when he and Bucks reserve Marvin Williams were ejected for a shoving match. Magic coach Steve Clifford already was working without forwards Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. To his credit, Clifford didn’t feel his team played hard enough or stayed close enough to have the right to complain about injuries or ejections.

Besides, having Antetokounmpo — whom Clifford called “the ultra competitor” — was the bigger deal regardless.

“All of us feed off of Giannis and his leadership and his energy and his competitiveness,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer. “When he’s showing it and sharing it with all of us, and touching all of us, it’s great. He’s our leader and we needed it.

“The 1 o’clock starts, you’ve got to find a way to dig deep and Giannis certainly did that, our group did that. We’re gonna need it again — I think we have another early start for Game 4.”

Antetokounmpo, at this stage of the playoffs anyway, has been winning the battle of adjustments between his game and Orlando’s defense. He joined some legends Saturday, becoming only the fourth player in league history to average at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists through the first three games of a series. (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett are the others.)

Playing the same team for the third time, you kind of know where shots are going to come from

Giannis Antetokounmpo

“Playing the same team for the third time, you kind of know where shots are going to come from,” Antetokounmpo said in his Zoom postgame session. “You know how they’re going to guard you. You know what to do when you roll, you know what to do when you post up, you know what to do when you come down the floor. You know where the help is coming from.

“You get, not more comfortable, you just get more aware out there.”

Antetokounmpo logged some second-half minutes against Magic center Nikola Vucevic, surrounded by deep threats George Hill, Kyle Korver, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo. The move was kind of a push on the scoreboard but it has the potential to either exploit a mismatch with Orlando’s best player or have Vucevic sit down.

Antetokounmpo’s energy and demeanor helped to wake up sidekick Khris Middleton, who had struggled in Games 1 and 2 averaging 8.0 points on 25 percent shooting. When the Bucks intentionally looked for Middleton early to try to get him going, the low-key wing responded with a pair of jump shots shortly before the Ennis-Williams skirmish.

His buddy from Greece screamed and punched the air after the second as if there’d been a buzzer beater.

That’s the sort of stuff teammates notice, Middleton said, talking about the confidence it instills.

“It felt good,” he said. “That’s what we’re used to [Giannis] doing. With thousands of fans behind him, cheering him on. We’re finding that we have to bring the energy ourselves because we don’t have those fans.”

Virtual fans are working fine for Milwaukee now, as long as Antetokounmpo remains his three-dimensional self.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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