Before we get started here, let’s make sure no one gets the Milwaukee Bucks’ timeline twisted as they made their way out of the NBA restart bubble down at Disney:
* The Bucks dug themselves a fatal 3-0 hole in their Eastern Conference semifinals series against Miami with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yes, the likely (and reigning) Kia Most Valuable Player and the certified KIa Defensive Player of the Year twisted his right ankle in Game 3. But he played through it, only exiting with 16 seconds left in that staggering 40-13 fourth quarter Friday.
* Milwaukee at that point essentially was eliminated from the 2020 postseason. While folks around the NBA like to say that Father Time is undefeated, they also know that dropping the first three games of a playoff series is insurmountable. It’s postseason quicksand, claiming all 140 teams that have stepped in it through the years.
* Then Antetokounmpo sprained the ankle again early in the second quarter of Game 4. He spotted his teammates 19 points in his 11 minutes, but they proved plucky enough to take advantage of some Heat complacence and avoid the sweep by winning in overtime.
* Then the Bucks’ star got ruled out shortly before Game 5 Tuesday, effectively ending their 2019-20 season against a Miami crew that wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. Milwaukee ran out of defense in stretches, ran out of buckets in one miserable third-quarter drought and ran out of time.
It’s important to keep the sequence of events straight because in the coming months or years, some people may get it mixed up.
They might attribute Milwaukee’s unacceptable ouster in five games, by a No. 5 seed, from the semifinals, to Antetokounmpo’s injury and absence from the series finale.
They might think that failing in five games somehow is better than four, when in truth it was over in three.
They might shift their gaze back to the Bucks’ admirable regular-season record, not just this time (56-17) but from 2018-19 (60-22) too.
They might spin all those things forward in an attempt to rationalize the Bucks’ second consecutive playoff failure. And then maybe alibi some more by citing the weird, artificial atmosphere of the Orlando restart campus or the Bucks’ focus on social protest that might not have been a distraction, per se, but clearly added a lot to their playoff plate.
To their credit, the players who were asked on their Zoom post-series interviews and coach Mike Budenholzer generally refused to blame the odd setting in which the NBA playoffs are unspooling or the off-court social justice agendas all 22 bubble-invited teams embraced from Day 1.
Everybody, winners and losers, have dealt with the same isolated, hunkered-down circumstances. And they all have felt capable of tackling two tasks, playing on the court and speaking out on their media platforms over the past eight weeks.
The Bucks could have felt a little extra glare from the spotlight they shined on themselves when they decided not to play Game 5 of their first-round series vs. Orlando on Aug. 26, the day it was scheduled. But the other teams still alive in the playoffs had their backs. The schedule got shifted by three days and basketball returned. It wasn’t as if Milwaukee got inordinately hounded by media attention, either — the reporters in the bubble remained the same, quarantine rules fending off a sudden rush from TMZ or the networks.
So now that we’ve accounted for the timeline and the purging of excuses, the questions remain.
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What happened to the Bucks’ mojo?
Do not underestimate the severity of the Bucks’ swoon. They got to March 1 with a 52-8 record. Then they went 1-4 before the virus lockdown, losing at Miami, at the Lakers, at Phoenix and at Denver. After an interruption of more than 4 1/2 months — again, same for everybody — Milwaukee went 3-5 in the seeding games, got spanked in its playoff opener by the Magic, and wound up at 5-5 in the two rounds as its bubble burst.
In all, that’s a 9-14 mark that began well before the restart. None of them had an answer for that lost vim, vigor, mojo or bottom-line results. Homecourt advantage? Yeah, it sure looks as if they needed what was nowhere to be found. The dazzling Fiserv Forum sat vacant back in the Cream City.
What is inescapable is that the Bucks need change, and a fair amount of it. An overhaul, not tweaks around the edges like they got last summer.
There would be zero satisfaction, and potentially a lethal dose of impatience, if general manager Jon Horst, Budenholzer, his staff and the players tried to run back the same group, same strategies, same results whenever 2020-21 gets here.
Posting the best record over the long schedule to again snag the No. 1 seed, then hoping for a different playoff result is a form of hoops insanity. Besides, that’s what this season was all about. The Bucks were two victories away from the 2019 Finals when they lost Game 3 to Toronto in overtime and never got back on track.
So that means they’re 5-9 in their last 14 postseason games.
Time for some roster changes?
Even if the Bucks (like the other 29 teams) won’t have to worry about selling tickets anytime soon, how will they attract eyeballs when fans already have seen this movie … twice?
It isn’t change for its own sake that’s needed. There are weak spots to address, holes to plug, work to be done and mistakes to be erased, if they can be.
The decision last offseason to keep Eric Bledsoe over Malcolm Brogdon goes all the way to the top, a financial flinch by co-owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens that saw the Bucks keeping the wrong guy. Or at least parting with the better player for them.
It’s been bad enough to see Bledsoe play poorly in the biggest moments — after the way he shrank against Boston in 2018 and Toronto last year, his work against Miami should be strike three. If, that is, there is a way to offload the guaranteed $40 million or so left on his contract.
What hurts too is that Bledsoe isn’t a shooter (Brogdon is), which is what Milwaukee needs from the point guard it teams with Antetokounmpo. He can be a fireplug defensively (he was named to the league’s All-Defensive second team Tuesday) but that doesn’t outweigh his inefficient and oft-forced offense.
Wesley Matthews at the other starting backcourt spot will turn 34 next month and played this season on borrowed time. George Hill, Bledsoe’s backup, already is 34. There’s more center Brook Lopez can give if asked, and Khris Middleton needs to use his play in Antetokounmpo’s absences against the Heat to boost his game to that next proverbial level.
Should the gameplan be revamped?
Budenholzer’s twice-tried, twice-thwarted system — based on making 3-point shots over the top of his freakishly versatile penetrator, while counting on opponents to miss theirs — needs a makeover. His team’s focus on defending the paint coupled with the game-by-game randomness of perimeter shooting earned the Bucks’ their No. 1 defensive ranking again this season.
But Miami beat them at their own game, shooting 37.3% from the arc for 75 3-pointers to the Bucks’ 32% and 54. The Raptors had turned them inside out that way as well.
Relying so heavily on Antetokounmpo — yet seeing how other players moved and played more aggressively in his absence near the end against the Heat — suggests there are skills and styles to blend toward better ends, too. No more waiting for Giannis to do it.
Look, revamping a system isn’t always an easy thing for a coaching staff, so Budenholzer’s happiness and future in Milwaukee may get bandied about outside and even inside the organization. When four playoff coaches already have gotten dumped — Indiana’s Nate McMillan, Philadelphia’s Brett Brown, Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn (interim) and now Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan — it’s important to remember that contracts are guaranteed but jobs are not.
As for Antetokounmpo, even he has miles to go, er, lots to improve upon for 2020-21, from his foul shooting and need for a reliable mid-range jump shot to new brakes, new shoes or new moves to cut down on his offensive fouls.
That “miles to go” phrasing might have confused some folks, focused as they might be on Antetokounmpo and the quarter-billion-dollar, five-year “supermax” contract extension he will or will not sign before next season. Even though the Greek Freak has room for growth and definitely can help his teammates more right where he is, that’s not necessarily how this league works.
To head off that disaster — Antetokounmpo deciding he wants out to seek his championship elsewhere — the Bucks frankly must change around him. However and whatever he wants.
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