Playoffs 2019 East Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)
Brogdon's return bolsters championship hopes, free-agent potential
Swingman recovered in time for a Finals push, ahead of crucial summer free-agency
* Tonight on TNT: Game 2, Raptors vs. Bucks (8:30 ET)
MILWAUKEE — The diagnosis and the prognosis came at Malcolm Brogdon fast. Bang-bang, one immediately after the other.
So there wasn’t time for the Milwaukee Bucks’ combo guard to fret that his late regular-season foot injury might morph from disappointing to something far more devastating.
Plantar fascia tears, like the one Brogdon suffered in his right foot on March 15 in Miami, can be tricky. Careers have been altered for some NBA players, while others have healed and returned after a few days, all depending on the severity.
But the third-year guard, who missed a season at Virginia after foot surgery six years ago, was a quick study. He absorbed everything the Bucks’ medical staff told him about the injury and, because there’d be no procedure this time around, shifted quickly into rehab.
“I got the MRI the day we came back from Miami, and then I talked to the doctor and he told me the timeframe,” Brogdon said.
Six-to-eight weeks. With the playoffs due to start in four, and Milwaukee closing in on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Brogdon claims to have stayed calm, but his teammates weren’t privy to the exam itself or the chats with the doctors and trainers. Initially, they feared the worst.
“We were kind of frustrated at the time,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said after practice Thursday. “After the game against Miami, for a few days, we didn’t know the timeline when he was going to be back. But they told us he would be ready probably the second round.”
Sure enough, exactly seven weeks and five days from the date of his foot injury, Brogdon — who started all 64 of his regular season appearances – subbed in for 16 minutes and … looked like himself. He scored 10 points with three rebounds and four assists in the Bucks’ Game 5 clincher May 8 over the Boston Celtics in their East semifinals series.
In the opener against Toronto on Wednesday at Fiserv Forum, skeptics familiar with Brogdon’s extended layoff were squinting hard in search of rust. It was nowhere to be found — he was the best player off the bench for either side, scoring 15 points in almost 27 minutes and logging defensive shifts on Raptors star forward Kawhi Leonard.
By halftime, Brogdon was the only Milwaukee player in the black in plus/minus rating (plus-6). By the end, he had posted a game-high plus-18. Leonard, by contrast, took 26 shots to score his 31 points and logged a minus-4 while coping with Brogdon, Khris Middleton and a rotating cast of help defenders.
“He had a huge impact on the game in a lot of different ways,” Budenholzer said Thursday, echoing his postgame sentiments. “I just feel so fortunate to be adding Malcolm back into our mix. And hopefully getting deeper and stronger as we move through the playoffs.”
It is a rarity, a team getting healthier as the games stack up. Golden State is looking for a similar bump when Kevin Durant, and perhaps DeMarcus Cousins, return in time to help in the West finals or the Finals.
But Brogdon’s value is more subtle as he proved indispensable to Milwaukee’s accomplishments this season, providing a stabilizing influence both on and off the court.
It wasn’t just Brogdon’s shooting accuracy, remarkable as that was (he became only the eighth NBA player since 1979 to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the foul line). It was an ability to impose himself at both ends for a minute or two, attacking the rim, launching a 3-pointer or making a stop during a Milwaukee lull.
Next thing they or their opponents knew, the Bucks were on their way to one of their signature double-digit victories. That’s the guy the league’s best regular season team could ill afford to lose, the one they were so thrilled to welcome back.
“Plantar fascia is not an injury that was going to take me out for long,” Brogdon said. “I knew that. It was just, at what point I was going to be back. And I had to be mentally prepared for it.”
That’s always the challenge. Injury rehab doesn’t just open a moat in a player’s timeline for when he’s back on the floor, it sends him into another realm altogether.
Brogdon had treatment to receive, exercises to do and routines to follow. Meanwhile, his teammates and coaches were locked in, preparing physically and mentally to face the Pistons or the Celtics. It’s easy, with such divergent agendas, for the injured guy to drift or feel distant from the group.
I was close but I needed the time. As an NBA player, you’ve got to worry about your health first.”
Brogdon and the Bucks, though, kept him involved. He traveled to away games and got much of his rehab work done early so he could continue to participate at practice, even if it meant coach-y stuff like tossing the ball to teammates.
“I think [Coach Budenholzer] does a great job of that,” Brogdon said. “Keeping me around, making sure I’m in every film session. My schedule is really around the guys. Work out, but in practice I’m active, passing the ball, I’m doing what I can to really participate.”
The backdrop to Brogdon’s injury absence was a little ominous, too. He will be a free agent this summer, and here he was getting hurt when his team and its rivals would be assessing his worth contractually. He is in line for a big raise from the three-year, $3.8 million deal he got as a second-round pick (No. 36 overall) in the 2016 Draft.
“It’s something that comes up, when you talk about injury in your contract year,” Brogdon told NBA.com. “But I have a great agent [Danielle Cantor-Jeweler] and I have a great coaching staff and front office that were patient with me. They didn’t rush me back, they let me come back at the right time.”
All season long, NBA coaches get asked about injuries with the preface, “If this were a playoff game …” Once Brogdon missed the last 13 of the Bucks’ 82, the next eight were all postseason. And still, he was a scratch.
“I was close but I needed the time,” he said. “And I’m not a guy who is ever going to rush back, no matter the circumstance. As an NBA player, you’ve got to worry about your health first. Get back on the court when you’re ready to get back on the court.”
The Bucks’ strong camaraderie helped, as did the fact they went 7-1 in the eight playoff games Brogdon missed. George Hill, Nikola Mirotic, Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova dialed up their contributions at various points to ease his absence. But getting back the original – he’ll continue to come off the bench, but could start later in this series – is even better.
Brogdon appreciates how his teammates, particularly Antetokounmpo, rendered moot any concerns he might feel disconnected. Those two banter, and the chatter never ceased.
“I think Giannis and I come from similar backgrounds, having a lot of brothers,” Brogdon said. “So we come from families where we talk a lot of mess. Whenever he sees me at the facility in the morning, we’re always going at it. Everybody knows we’re gonna start. But it sort of gets us going for the day.”
Brogdon said he didn’t get a chance to give Antetokounmpo grief over the fast-break dunk he got midway through the final quarter Wednesday, off a long bounce pass from Middleton that had their team up 96-91. Antetokounmpo had already joked with reporters that there wasn’t anything Brogdon could tell him about dunks.
But how did “The Greek Freak” really feel about his pal’s return?
“Malcolm did a great job just being around the team,” Antetokounmpo said. “Trying to get healthy and not worry about trying to handle our business. Now he’s back healthy and he’s been playing great.”
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