The Milwaukee Bucks secured their first playoff series win since 2001 on Monday, and the breakthrough was mostly greeted by yawns.
Ironically, Giannis Antetokounmpo, perhaps the NBA’s most exciting player, was responsible for the deep feeling of anticlimax. The sixth-year forward was simply too talented, too strong and too consistent during four straight blowouts of the Detroit Pistons. Antetokounmpo’s closing effort was nothing short of MVP caliber: Taking charge of a tight game at halftime, he barreled to the hoop for 20 free throw attempts and tallied a playoff career-high 41 points.
For Milwaukee, the 127-104 victory clinched the sweep and ended an 18-year run of mediocrity. Since last advancing in the playoffs, the Bucks have employed 10 coaches, suffered through 10 losing seasons and made nine draft lottery trips. Not that anyone outside Wisconsin seemed to care, given that the Pistons were an overmatched No. 8 seed whose star, Blake Griffin, was severely limited by a knee injury.
The tepid reaction can also be attributed to a desire to get on with the show, because a much juicier story awaits. After losing to the Boston Celtics last year, Milwaukee now gets its rematch. The Bucks, under new coach Mike Budenholzer, have upgraded Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast and offensive system. The Celtics, meanwhile, welcomed back Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who both missed the 2018 postseason with injuries.
The teams are well-coached and well-balanced, but they stand in striking contrast in multiple areas. Milwaukee has displayed better chemistry and consistency all season; Boston enjoys a healthy experience advantage and a mental edge after last year’s seven-game first-round series. The Bucks knocked out the Pistons with the help of the top-ranked offense in the playoffs; the Celtics swept the Indiana Pacers thanks to the league’s top-ranked defense. Even their franchise players, both game-changing offensive forces, exist as opposites: Antetokounmpo pummels the basket but struggles as a three-point shooter; Irving is comfortable pulling up from beyond the arc but rarely goes above the rim.
Milwaukee will test Boston’s defense in ways Indiana could never dream. Midway through last year’s playoff series, Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said Antetokounmpo was “impossible to guard.” The task has only gotten more difficult now that Milwaukee’s centerpiece is fresh thanks to careful minutes management and flanked by veteran floor-spacers Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova.
Antetokounmpo dished out punishment to virtually every player on Detroit’s roster in Game 4, reaching to dunk on Thon Maker, soaring to block Ish Smith, swatting Griffin and forcing his way through Andre Drummond for an and-one. Just before halftime, he attempted a right-handed dunk over Drummond, only to double-clutch on his descent. The midair improvisation recalled Michael Jordan’s “spectacular move” against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, and Antetokounmpo managed to finish the circus shot while drawing a foul.
“You don’t understand how athletic you’ve been all season,” Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe told Antetokounmpo later. “That one was just unbelievable.”
Boston’s defensive success will hinge on its ability to limit Antetokounmpo’s transition opportunities, to make him work for every shot he gets near the basket and to encourage him to shoot from the outside. Of course, all of that is easier said than done.
On the other end, the Bucks are counting on Bledsoe to rebound from his poor showing in last year’s playoffs. The 29-year-old was clearly overwhelmed by the pressure, and his series was derailed by an ongoing beef with Celtics guard Terry Rozier.
Boston’s most vulnerable moments come when its offense suffers from lackluster ball movement and shot selection; encouraging those deficiencies starts at the point of attack. Bledsoe will be tasked with making Irving, a ballhandling and shot-making virtuoso, work as hard as possible for his points. Even so, the Celtics’ point guard made it look easy against the Pacers, averaging 22.5 points and 7.8 assists while regularly taking over in clutch moments.
Although the Bucks won a league-leading 60 games and took two of three games against the Celtics in the regular season, they aren’t being welcomed with reverence or even deference.
“I’m not really paying attention to who was the top team in the conference during the regular season,” Irving said after Game 4. “Those wins are racked up already. Those are pretty set. At this point it’s really about who can beat the team in a seven-game series. It’s a reset button. We know what to expect.”
Before Antetokounmpo fully turned his attention to the second round, he took a moment to reflect on his first taste of the playoffs. In 2015, he suffered his first of three first-round exits. The Chicago Bulls blew out the Bucks in the decisive Game 6 that year, and Antetokounmpo was ejected for body-slamming Mike Dunleavy Jr. in frustration.
“I remember our first playoff series, the last game they beat us by ,” Antetokounmpo said. “[From] where we were then to where we are right now has been an unbelievable journey. The organization has done a great job pushing us to the right direction. We’re going to try to stay in the moment, enjoy it, and hopefully achieve our goals.”
The 20-year-old forward who lost his composure has matured into a 24-year-old phenomenon whose sights are set on beating Boston, and more. Milwaukee’s time outside the spotlight has officially come to an end.
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