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Giannis Antetokounmpo's jokes aside, Bucks serious about repeating

The two-time Kia MVP and Milwaukee look ready to begin another long playoff run next week.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks have all the pieces to win the title again.

Have you heard? Giannis has jokes.

The one he told recently after a game about what you call a cow lying on the floor — ground beef — certainly gives you an idea about the quality of these knee-slappers.

Maybe this was the best of the bunch: “I had one (joke) about a mustache, but I’ll shave it for later.”

By collecting “Dad Jokes” and giving us all some much-needed humor — even if most of them are cornier than Iowa — Giannis Antetokounmpo proves once again that he gets it. He’s the rare superstar who takes his responsibilities seriously, but not himself. He’s as genuine as it gets.

And at the same time, the Bucks are no laughing matter.

They should be taken very seriously as the NBA creeps toward the postseason. Because there are some serious indications that the defending champs — wait for the punch line — might be marginally better than a year ago when they sipped champagne.

Wait: The Bucks, better? Improved? Qualified to go back-to-back?

All of the above are plausible arguments.

And of course, much has to do with Antetokounmpo, a two-time Kia MVP who could be wrapping up his best regular season ever. Of course, that’ll put him right back into the thick of the MVP conversation and, should he win, would elevate him among the all-time greats at the young age of 27, if he isn’t there already.

He has an outside chance at the scoring title at 30 points a game mainly because he improved his mid-range game — making him even more deadly when he decides to run downhill and attack the rim. His rebounding, always top-shelf, is once again among the league leaders at 11.6. His passing out of the double team is better, and here’s what separates him from other MVP contenders: Antetokounmpo will be a strong contender to win his second Kia Defensive Player of the Year award.

In retrospect, Antetokounmpo from 2019-22 is one of the most dominant forces the league has ever seen. Offense, defense, winning, the entire package makes for a compelling case.

“He’s just a special player,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He makes us better in every facet of the game.”

But overall, based on depth and balance, the Bucks are bringing the goods once again. Especially now, with center Brook Lopez, who missed 67 games with a back injury, returning to the lineup and providing the interior defense and rim protection that makes him valuable.

This is important because Lopez has the size (7-feet, 280 pounds) and length and defensive smarts to use against Joel Embiid, should the Bucks need to go through the Sixers in the postseason, and Bam Adebayo if there’s a Miami-Milwaukee matchup. They’re just a much better defensive team when Lopez and Antetokounmpo are together and causing problems.

Lopez is also coming off a 28-point game because he brings outside shooting and a gentle touch near the hoop. He opens the floor for Giannis and keeps the double-team away from Khris Middleton.

Bucks center Brook Lopez drops 28 points in a win against the Bulls.

“For me, it’s just continuing to find that rhythm and get more in sync with everyone,” Lopez said, emphasizing the necessity because “come playoff time you have that confidence to go out there and do whatever you need to do.”

Lopez pulled up lame after opening night and didn’t return until a week ago. Yet the Bucks compensated during his absence by using the depth that makes them so dangerous and especially Bobby Portis, who used grit and toughness to his advantage on those many nights when height wasn’t in his favor.

The Lopez injury was the only major issue the Bucks have faced all season. Beyond that, this team, which is one victory away from 50 wins, has been mainly healthy and all of the important players performed at a high level. Obviously, there was no drop in the play of Antetokounmpo, but the same for Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Those three pieces came together nicely last season and the Bucks are now reaping the benefits of their continued relationship.

What’s best about Antetokounmpo-Middleton-Holiday is how they balance each other, mesh with each other and defer to each other. Even though Giannis is obviously the centerpiece, it’s common for Middleton (who had 44 points last month in a win over Phoenix) to take the big shot, and for Holiday to have the ball in his hands. This is a big credit to Giannis, who doesn’t bring a superstar’s ego to the mix.

“They just trust each other, they believe in each other,” Budenholzer said. “Just the fact that those three guys are unselfish and they’ll do whatever we need, whatever it takes to win. They’re all happy for each other, they all believe in each other. It’s really special.”

Channing Frye makes his case for Giannis Antetokounmpo to win the Kia MVP and the Bucks to win the title.

The support around them is a slight improvement from the championship season, even with the loss of PJ Tucker, a crucial defensive player and corner shooter. Portis remains a versatile front-line player. Grayson Allen has been a solid addition as a space-player connecting on 41% from deep. Serge Ibaka was another solid pickup who brings championship experience and the ability to guard bigger players. Also, Pat Connaughton adds to the Bucks’ outside shooting at 39% from deep.

Essentially, the Bucks have quietly and efficiently remained in the mix all season, patiently waited out the absence of Lopez, and used the brilliance of Antetokounmpo to maintain their championship shine. While the conversation has centered around the Sixers adding James Harden, the Nets getting Kyrie Irving back for home games, and the Celtics’ second-half surge, the Bucks spent their time chugging along and staying drama-free.

Even the team they beat in the 2021 NBA Finals, the Suns, are busy collecting accolades and pats on the back for clinching the best record in the league. Is it possible that the Bucks, the actual defending champs, are being forgotten by the masses in the grand scheme?

That would be a dangerous omission. Because even with a tougher conference to conquer, the Bucks might have just as good a chance to return to the Finals as the Suns.

To combat the threats in the East, they’re bringing the best player at both ends (with all due respect to Embiid and Kevin Durant), a deadly and efficient shooter in Middleton, an A-list perimeter defender in Holiday, a refreshed Lopez, some swagger in Portis and a decent collection of shooters to surround Antetokounmpo. It helps that the Nets, who nearly eliminated the Bucks last summer, must navigate the Play-In Tournament and probably will be without Ben Simmons even if they make the playoffs. Also, the Celtics are dealing with the loss of injured young emerging center Robert Williams, whose height and defense will be missed.

But that’s the point: Milwaukee doesn’t have any issues. At least none that are serious. Now that Lopez makes them whole and improves its defense, which was problematic for much of the season without him, the Bucks can go about the business of defending their title with confidence.

A well-balanced team, armed with shooters, bringing an improved defense, solid coaching and championship experience makes for a very compelling candidate for the next title.

Plus, the Bucks own an edge over most of the field with a two-way star who can keep the mood light. Antetokounmpo is much like the Bucks — arguably better than ever. Maybe at some point over the next few months, the jokes will improve, too.

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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.

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