It’s time for Giannis Antetokounmpo to start thinking about what he needs to do to win a championship.
Based on the Sunday performance of so many Milwaukee Bucks not named Antetokoumpo, perhaps the ensemble of Larry O’Brien lifting help is right where he needs it. There in the Bucks locker room, picking him up figuratively … after picking him up literally, when he fell to the court early in the second quarter of Game 4 of their East semifinal series against Miami.
Antetokounmpo aggravated the sprained right ankle first rolled in Game 3 on Friday, part of the meltdown that dropped them into this 3-0 hole. It was severe enough that the reigning Kia MVP left the game at 10:18 of the second quarter and never returned.
History, according to the NBA, already had the Bucks as dead deer walking, facing the same inevitable elimination that came for the first 139 teams to open a best-of-seven series by losing the first three. But to lose Antetokounmpo, the league’s likely repeat MVP and certified top defender of 2019-20? Against this Heat squad that had been more resourceful, more tenacious and playing to its own high standards from the series’ start?
Why of course. The remaining Bucks, down 31-30 when Antetokounmpo exited, outscored Miami 88-84 for a 118-115 overtime victory on the Walt Disney World campus.
Made no sense. Wouldn’t have bet on it. Yet bubblicious, in an admirable way.
This sort of stuff happens occasionally in sports, and in this case there were a few contributing factors:
* The remaining Bucks were desperate. With Antetokounmpo gone, they really knew their season was about to end, banishing them from the bubble into an offseason of undetermined length and indefinite futures. You don’t earn the No. 1 seed in the conference two years running only to be so rudely dispatched.
Most have heard the chatter through two playoff quests that Antetokounmpo’s teammates might not be up to the task of properly chasing a championship with, and for, him. Yet just when it seemed some of them — along with coach Mike Budenholzer — might have been working their last games with the Bucks, they spoke up against that. Loudly, for a night.
“[Giannis] was laying it on the line out there for us. His ankle already was in bad shape,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said, after the postseason performance of his life (36 points, eight rebounds, eight assists). Antetokounmpo had, in fact, scored 19 points in 11 minutes, leading Milwaukee back from an early 12-point deficit to one once he got hurt.
“However long he was out there, he was giving it his all,” Middleton said. “We had to have his back.”
* Miami relaxed. Jimmy Butler even said so afterward, admitting that the focus and drive that had carried his team to the 3-0 start and seven victories without defeat in the postseason flickered Sunday.
“We did what all of us said we can’t do, and that’s get comfortable,” Butler said. “We thought this game was going to be easy and it was not. … We knew what we had to do coming into this game.”
Human nature? Sure. Costly against a wounded foe? Sure.
“I feel like we played like we were up 3-0,” said center Bam Adebayo. “I feel like we got complacent a little bit. … And they just kept playing.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said it unfolding in defensive lapses that hurt — baseline cuts, offensive rebounds, Bucks shooters getting to their preferred spots. Uncharacteristic for them.
“We didn’t defend with the level of detail and effort and concentration,” Spoelstra said. “The reality is, they deserved to win this game. They were playing harder, they were doing things with more force, more consistency, getting us off our spots in our offense.”
More force, consistency and motion looked good on the Bucks, who can often look deferential and passive while Antetokounmpo attacks and buckles under swarms of defenders.
* Milwaukee’s options were limited. This is the more complicated factor, with the implication that a few of the Bucks’ best players after Antetokounmpo might play more free-and-easy when they can’t defer to his game.
It happens all the time for reserves who step in for an injured teammate — they know they’re getting their minutes that night, no quick hook, so they’re able to get into a rhythm. With the Bucks, Middleton, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe knew the ball was going to be in their hands at levels rarely experienced — Antetokounmpo topped the NBA this season with a 37.5 usage rate.
Someone had to pick up the slack, or Miami might have started playing make-it-take-it.
So in addition to Middleton’s firepower stretched across 48 of the 53 minutes, the Bucks got 14 from Lopez, Bledsoe’s most active game (14 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists) and even 10 points and five boards from Donte DiVincenzo.
The second-year guard from Villanova had looked overmatched in the previous games but wound up a game-high plus-22 in his 27 minutes. The biggest one came when he salvaged a possession in the final seconds of regulation by drawing a foul on Goran Dragic. With 1.9 left, his team down 107-106, DiVincenzo missed the first foul shot but hit the second to trigger the overtime.
Middleton went over to rub the kid’s shoulders, assuring him that he had made the free throw they’d needed. That’s sort of what Middleton and the rest of them did with Antetokounmpo, assuring him they’d cover for him for a night.
“The Greek Freak” hobbled out of AdventHealth Arena in a walking boot, with nothing but guesses for 24-to-48 hours whether he would be able to play Game 5 on that ankle.
Regardless, the energy and passion, the aggression and movement and urgency the other Bucks showed need to be there. Not just Tuesday but whenever they start their next playoff series together.
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