The last time the NBA faced such an awkward timing issue in presenting the Kia Most Valuable Player Award was in 2007, the year Dirk Nowitzki won it but already had been dispatched from the postseason. He and his No. 1-seeded Mavericks were upset in the first round by No. 8 Golden State. So the trophy ceremony came a couple weeks later in Dallas, at a bittersweet news conference as the postseason rolled on without them.
That appears to be the dilemma facing the league now with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Straw polls suggest the Milwaukee Bucks star is a heavy favorite to be named NBA MVP for the second season in a row. If the presentation is delayed until the Bucks are out of the Disney restart bubble — in deference to the 3-0 hole against Miami in which they find themselves, another No. 1 seed in dire playoff trouble — it will end up on Zoom, the doors of Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum locked by pandemic orders to appreciative fans, most of Antetokounmpo’s teammates scattered to the offseason.
If, on the other hand, it’s decided that the MVP — the last undisclosed award of the NBA’s six top-tier annual honors — should get presented before the Bucks are eliminated, which could come as soon as Sunday afternoon, league honchos will likely seek some sort of assurance that Antetokounmpo doesn’t silently hand it to the Heat’s irrepressible Jimmy Butler.
There is no doubt who the MVP has been in Antetokounmpo’s and Butler’s head-to-head matchup through three games of their Eastern Conference semifinal. What the Greek Freak did to the rest of the league from October into March, Jimmy (More Than) Buckets has been doing to the Bucks in grabbing a never-surmounted 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Teams that fall so far behind have gone 0-139 in NBA playoff history, which would have even the Jim Carrey half of Dumb and Dumber admitting that, nah, there’s no chance.
To be honest, there’s really no need to assess all three games, as far as what Miami is doing so well and how Milwaukee has gotten so sideways from the style successful enough to run up that 56-17 regular-season record.
The fourth quarter of Game 3 provided all the biopsy any pathologist would need.
It was one of those hit-them-so-hard-it-wins-the-whole-series quarters, though Miami already was well on its way in that direction. The Heat trailed 87-75 when the period began and 91-80 with 10 minutes left at The Field House. From there, the Heat could do almost no wrong while the Bucks could do almost nothing right.
Miami outscored them 35-9 over those final 10 minutes. In all, the 27-point differential was the most one-sided of any fourth quarter in playoff history.
The Heat caught and passed Milwaukee as if Antetokounmpo and his mates were standing still, which at times they obviously were. The comeback started with a pair of Bam Adebayo free throws at 9:40, continued through a couple more by Butler at 6:16 to tie and edge ahead, 94-93, then all but wrapped on Jae Crowder’s 3-pointer from the wing on Butler’s penetration-and-kick that made it 107-100 at 2:15.
So yeah, a 27-9 rush in less than 7 1/2 minutes, and then Miami tacking on the game’s final eight points, too. With the Bucks encased in amber or something.
After providing a laundry list of his team’s failings down the stretch, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer summed it up: “They made every play and we didn’t make enough, obviously.”
Then, perhaps due to the screaming in his head in those initial minutes after Game 3, Budenholzer made some odd comments. He talked about winning the first three quarters Friday, along with the last three quarters of Game 2.
“So six quarters in a row,” he said.
When asked about still keeping his best players, Antetokounmpo (34:55) and Khris Middleton (36:03), at a moderate minutes level despite the increasing urgency, Budenholzer said: “Obviously it’s 48 minutes and we’ve got to be good for the last 12.”
The irony about the last 12 seemed lost on him.
So much of what Milwaukee built its season and identity on has vanished. Miami is taking and making more 3-pointers, while the Bucks struggle with that weapon. A defense that prides itself on not fouling sent the Heat to the line for 34 free throws.
And a group to which Antetokounmpo, the Defensive Player of the Year, gave credit for making that award possible has been torched for 115.3 points per game in this series.
Most of all, what Miami has had that Milwaukee has lacked has been toughness, both physically and mentally. If you did a draft, playground style, with the rosters of these teams for sheer toughness, you’d get at least three deep in Heat players — Butler, Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder — before you picked the first Buck. And that’s not counting Udonis Haslem, Miami’s Yoda on the bench.
There’s a sense that nobody pulls it together in crises for Milwaukee like any of the above. They’re much more into affability than volatility, which has them looking steamrolled emotionally as well as in the outcomes.
Consider where Antetokounmpo pointed for the failure Friday.
“They play harder than us,” he said, several times. “They play harder than us.”
Now try to picture Butler, three losses in, sitting at a podium to tell the world that their rivals were playing harder than his team.
Can’t do it. The ruckus from behind the closer locker room door after Game 1 or Game 2 would have said everything. It would not have happened a third time.
Antetokounmpo might not be that guy for Milwaukee, but somebody needs to be. Needed to have been, frankly.
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