2020 Playoffs: First Round | Bucks vs. Magic

Bucks have star power, but stuck vying for public's attention

Milwaukee is slotted playing matinees despite boasting the league's best record and reigning Kia MVP

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ORLANDO, Fla. — He’s a transformational player who leads the team with the best record in the NBA, a “freak” in the complimentary sense, worthy of all the applause thrown his way and is expected to shatter all salary records this time next year.

Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly fits the description of a matinee idol, and the TV networks are certainly making sure of that.

Giannis and the Bucks are shoved into the matinee spots for the first round of the playoffs — their weekday afternoon tipoff times are more in line with NFL Sunday kickoff times. Those early playoff slots are usually reserved for teams and players with low national appeal and expectations. If you have a Zoom call scheduled or an important lunch date, then cancel all plans to see the top-seeded team in the NBA playoffs and the player who might win back-to-back MVPs.

What’s really curious is how this distinction runs polar opposite for LeBron James and the Lakers, who’ll understandably get nightly TV love. It simply confirms the suspicion that even if Giannis takes the top individual honors once again, LeBron will keep a vice grip on the people’s MVP — Most Valuable Primetime.

Yes, someone will mention the Bucks’ low-wattage first-round opponent, the Orlando Magic, and Milwaukee being a small-market city as reasons why three of the Bucks’ first four games will tip at 1 or 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time. But LeBron seldom, if ever, played afternoon playoff games with mid-market Cleveland — no matter whom the Cavs faced.

Since the medium tends to reflect the demand of viewers, there’s a greater issue here, and it’s about the appetite for the Bucks and their superstar, who find themselves in a very strange position as they and 15 other teams embark on an equally-strange playoff journey here at this single-site NBA campus.

“I feel like my whole career, even this year, as good as we have been, they haven’t been paying a lot of attention to us,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have the focus to win even though they don’t talk about us. At the end of the day all that matters is what we do. We’re going to try to improve every day, focus on us, how we get better and how we go out there and compete. As long as we do that, we’ll be in a good place.”

The Bucks fought all season to seize the league’s best record and the major perk that accompanies that — home-court advantage throughout the postseason. Obviously, that was all for naught, since not a single game will be played in Fiserv Forum, which quickly became a very loud Bucks’ mosh pit in its very short history. The Bucks were 30-5 on their court, second only to the Sixers for home cooking, which means there will only be artificial help pumping through the loudspeakers inside the Disney-based arenas if the Bucks find themselves needing a motivational boost.

Also, basketball sentiment this fall probably rests with LeBron in his quest to win a third championship with a third team, while the betting money is being placed on the LA Clippers, maybe more than the Bucks, to win it all.

I feel like my whole career, even this year, as good as we have been, they haven’t been paying a lot of attention to us. We have the focus to win even though they don’t talk about us.”

— Giannis Antetokounmpo

So the Bucks will emphasize their selling points — 3-point shooting and defense — and if all else fails, throw the ball to the reigning Kia MVP and give him room. That formula was good from October through March before the NBA pulled the plug on the season.

“We believe in it,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “A lot of it starts with our defense. We’re good defensively and that fuels part of our offense. We can be better in our spacing and getting to those spots. We have a ton of faith in our guys. The great thing about this team is they love the challenge and love competing. We’re very excited and happy to be saying we’re starting the playoffs.”

Somehow, that doesn’t register much on the national thrill scale. Over the last two decades, the teams that compiled the best records in the NBA usually found a massive, widespread audience. That includes the LeBron Cavs, the “Big Three” Heat, the Stephen Curry Warriors, even the Derrick Rose Bulls; maybe the lone exception being the fundamentally-sound San Antonio Spurs. Television gravitated to those fun teams because of star power and greatness and also because the audience either wanted them to succeed or fail spectacularly.

The Bucks? By putting them on to compete against daytime soap operas, TV says they generate ho-humdrum.

The other issue is the prime-time shows nationally that’ll compete with the NBA right now. Baseball games are in full swing, and because this is an election year, the political shows are enjoying robust ratings. LeBron can challenge that, yet there’s not as much faith in Giannis.

So this is somewhat a referendum on Giannis and his ability to quicken the basketball pulse, especially those belonging to the casual basketball audience. It’s a strange if not awkward position for a superstar to find himself. Is Giannis on a first-name basis in the basketball world because he’s an otherworldly talent, or because it’s easier to pronounce than his last name?

The talent cannot be denied. Giannis delivered spectacularly during this fractured season and was arguably better than his MVP season of a year earlier. His 29.5 points and 13.6 rebounds rated fifth and second league-wide, and he also added 5.6 assists as the point man for the Bucks’ offense (all while playing just 30.4 minutes per game). He’s a finalist for this year’s MVP along with LeBron and James Harden. Antetokoumpo is also the favorite to win Kia Defensive Player of the Year for his stellar work there, often guarding multiple positions while cleaning the glass.

A star with an amazing backstory involving his large family’s immigration from Africa to Greece, and his rapid basketball development, and someone who’s polite, easy with the smile and sinister on the floor should enjoy a higher profile. Not that he seems terribly troubled by that.

“My goal is to win a championship and lead my team,” he said. “And my teammates are going to help me be great.”

Obviously, there are some in Milwaukee who’ll exhale after hearing that. Giannis becomes a free agent next summer and the small Midwestern town hardly offers the cultural affections of big-city life. Those charms would appear to appeal to an international player with ambitions of becoming a global sensation. Often, the small-town issue is overblown; Damian Lillard makes millions in endorsements while tucked away in the Pacific Northwest with the Blazers, same for Russell Westbrook when the former MVP was based in Oklahoma City.

TV doesn’t love those towns, though, unless LeBron happens to get his mail delivered there.

Anyway, the saga of Giannis and his future plans are a hot-take for another day. If the Bucks win a championship in October, those discussions could be moot. In the meantime, the Bucks will launch the pursuit of that trophy by toiling in the afternoon, feeling the urge to title their journey as The Days Of Our Lives or The Young And The Restless.

“At the end of the day,” said guard Eric Bledsoe, briefly forgetting the Bucks will play closer to the start of the day, “we’re trying to reach one goal. If they have us playing at 9 in the morning, we’ll play at 9. It don’t matter.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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