Almost as soon as the NBA narrative mill had warmed to Milwaukee and its extraordinary progress, it moved on to new superstar pairings and back to the comfort of bigger markets. The Bucks, though, have not forgotten how close they came against the Raptors, nor have they abandoned the principles that got them there in the first place.
“I’m definitely not over it,” Bucks General Manager Jon Horst told The Washington Post before a 129-124 road victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. “We’re all regretful we didn’t win that series. I don’t think anyone will be over it until you get an opportunity to right the ship. That’s why we do this: Every competitor wants a chance to work and get better than they were last time. [Budenholzer] has done that. Giannis has done that. All our players have. Hopefully you can see that from what our front office did in the offseason, too.”
If Horst sounds like a man on a mission, Antetokounmpo certainly looks like one. On Saturday, the Greek forward put up 36 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a win over the Raptors, admitting to “a lot of motivation” in his first rematch against the reigning champions. On Monday, he pulverized the Timberwolves with 34 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. On Wednesday, as Leonard looked on from the bench while resting because of load management, Antetokounmpo tallied 38 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks to knock off the Clippers.
“I’m not going to say I was disappointed,” Antetokounmpo said of his missed connection with Leonard. “If Kawhi is playing, you’re going to have a tough night. I’m excited to see him in the future.”
Freed from his foil, Antetokounmpo hit four three-pointers, played the entire fourth quarter, made numerous hustle plays and converted four free throws in the final minute to help seal the win. This was the type of tour de force that has become routine for him, and he left the Staples Center court to scattered “M-V-P” chants from appreciative Bucks fans. Afterward, he muttered that he isn’t “as sharp as I want to be” with his shooting stroke, a scary proposition given that he ranks fifth in the NBA in scoring while captaining the league’s most efficient offense.
Indeed, there is a deep-seated perfectionism to everything Antetokounmpo does, whether he is grunting through contact drills more than two hours before tip-off or describing recent tweaks to his shooting mechanics. His drive is matched by a fierce loyalty to his teammates. After Eric Bledsoe mistakenly and embarrassingly stepped onto the court instead of inbounding the ball, Antetokounmpo rushed to take the blame because he had tried to call a play that prompted the confusion. When a reporter inquired about his career-high 7.6 assists per game, which places him in the NBA’s top 10, he Euro-stepped the premise and deferred all credit to the shooters that surround him.
“He’s just a sensational player with a sensational mental makeup,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “There are very few players that you have to deal with their talent and with their approach. When you play Giannis, he will try to kill you if he can.”
Horst’s offseason plan for supporting his franchise player, who will be eligible to sign a five-year, $250 million supermax contract next summer, wasn’t particularly flashy or complicated. While the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Brooklyn Nets loaded up on star power, Milwaukee aimed to retain as many of its free agents as possible while adding low-cost, high-character veterans to prepare for another deep playoff run. After inking Bledsoe to an early extension, the Bucks re-signed starters Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez before adding Wesley Matthews and Lopez’s twin, Robin, on two-year contracts.
The one major casualty was Malcolm Brogdon, a key secondary ballhandler who received a four-year, $85 million contract from the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade. Critics quickly wondered whether Milwaukee was cutting corners and costing itself a key playoff piece by not retaining the 26-year-old guard, who is averaging 22.3 points and 9.9 assists per game.
“I’m pained by it, yes,” Horst said of Brogdon’s departure. “Malcolm is a great person and a great player. I wish him the best in Indiana. But I don’t feel like we were forced to do anything that we didn’t want to. We made a trade with Tony Snell that freed us up to match any offers. We have an ownership group that has allowed us to do whatever we need to do [financially]. The decision on Malcolm really came down to what we thought we could get in return. Do we want to pay for what we think his market could be or do we want to see if we could get something that helps us now and going forward?"
Milwaukee received a first-round pick and two second-round picks, helping to replenish an asset pool that was depleted by win-now deals for George Hill and Nikola Mirotic last season.
“I don’t think it’s said enough in the NBA that it’s possible for both parties to win,” Horst continued. “It’s possible that we could be a better team without Malcolm. It’s possible that he could be a better player in Indiana. It’s possible that we could both do a great trade. Early on, it looks like that.”
The Bucks boast a 6-2 record and the league’s best net rating, with Antetokounmpo already emerging as one of the top 2020 MVP candidates. Although Matthews and Robin Lopez, a 7-footer who is being encouraged to launch three-pointers for the first time, have yet to find their outside touch, Budenholzer’s five-out offense is tied for first in three-point makes. Antetokounmpo is finding his teammates, new and old, with no-look passes and whirling kick-outs, and the menacing machine is humming along.
It’s easy to envision Antetokounmpo back in Los Angeles for a June showdown with Leonard’s Clippers or LeBron James’s Lakers. If anyone in the East can spoil those plans, it is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have flanked franchise center Joel Embiid with a jumbo-sized lineup that includes Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons. That group appears tailor-made to frustrate Antetokounmpo with length and physicality, although Milwaukee’s additions bring size and shooting to counter Philadelphia.
To Horst, the summer maneuvers shouldn’t be viewed as “a chess match where they used their rook so we’re going to move our knight” but rather as the latest step in the Bucks’ self-optimization plan. Their formula: Antetokounmpo, plus the power of continuity, plus a powerful offensive system and a proven commitment to defense, plus an organization-wide insistence that the collapse against Toronto did not reveal fatal flaws.
If they pulled out Game 3 in double overtime or if Leonard had been slightly less dominant or if Bledsoe had played to his regular season standard or if Antetokounmpo had played more minutes, perhaps the Bucks and not the Raptors would have vanquished the Warriors’ dynasty.
“We’re coming off a great season, and we should be proud,” Horst said. “We’re positioned to do it again. We believe if you keep knocking on the door and if you have the right players, you’re going to break through with a championship. That’s what we want to do.”