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The Lakers and Bucks, disrupted NBA contenders, don’t want to hear any asterisk talk

LeBron James tries to get past Giannis Antetokounmpo during a game in March, days before the league shut down. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The Milwaukee Bucks were deep into a joyride season when the novel coronavirus intervened to spoil a long list of promising narratives.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was tracking toward his second consecutive MVP award and was a favorite to be the defensive player of the year. The Bucks held the NBA’s best record and were on pace to claim home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their finely tuned offense was electric, poised to land the franchise’s first NBA Finals berth since 1974. Their defense was suffocating, with motivated veterans seeking redemption for a flameout in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals.

But play abruptly stopped March 11, leaving Milwaukee and other top contenders such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in limbo. For Antetokounmpo, the three-month shutdown has meant more free time with his newborn son, Liam, and an opportunity to reflect on and participate in the country’s social justice protests. The time off shattered schedules and routines, even temporarily stranding Antetokounmpo without court access, and it prompted talk that this year’s champions would face an asterisk because of the unprecedented midseason disruption.

Now the NBA’s resumption of play at a restricted campus near Orlando later this month has forced another round of adjustments.

Antetokounmpo must prepare to enter a quarantined bubble and spend at least a month away from his son and girlfriend. The Bucks must recapture their exceptional chemistry without home-court advantage and with only a few weeks of team training sessions, which can’t commence until the squad lands in Florida, per the NBA’s health and safety protocols. And the organization must refocus on its goal of winning the title while living and playing through the threat of a deadly virus that has led to at least 126,000 deaths in the United States.

“This is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win,” Antetokounmpo said Wednesday in Milwaukee, dismissing asterisk talk. “The circumstances are really, really tough right now. Whoever wants it more will be able to go out there and take it.”

The Bucks are hardly alone in seeking to reframe the adverse circumstances. If outsiders view the coronavirus crisis, the schedule shutdown and the bubble uncertainty as reasons to invalidate the playoffs, the NBA’s top contenders interpret them as additional motivation and, perhaps, a badge of honor.

“[Adam Silver] said the team that wins this will deserve a gold star, not an asterisk,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, recalling a conversation he had with the NBA commissioner last week. “Whoever comes out of this, it’s going to come down to [mental toughness]. There’s going to be so many things that are thrown at us that we don’t even know yet.”

While the Bucks and Clippers expect to have their full rosters available in the bubble, the Lakers will be without guard Avery Bradley, who chose to sit out the resumed season because of family health concerns. The Lakers, who were the West’s top seed before the shutdown, signed guard J.R. Smith, who won a title alongside LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers, to fill Bradley’s spot.

It remains unclear whether center Dwight Howard, who experienced a death in the family this summer, will join the Lakers in the Orlando area, but the franchise remains hopeful and will hold his spot on the roster.

“Our team has been through a lot this year,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said Wednesday, making a glancing reference to Kobe Bryant’s death in January. “We’ve endured and come out strong each time we’ve faced adversity. If we’re able to come through all of this and achieve the ultimate prize, I do think it deserves a ‘harder than ordinary’ asterisk if you’re going to put an asterisk on it. I don’t think it weakens it at all. It only strengthens it.”

While the NBA invited 22 teams to Florida, the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers are still the clear favorites to win the championship. James, who is seeking his fourth title, was back at the Lakers’ practice facility Wednesday as Vogel and Lakers President Rob Pelinka looked on from the sideline, wearing masks.

Antetokounmpo is pursuing the first title of his career, while Clippers star Kawhi Leonard aims to win his third championship with three franchises. The Clippers could benefit from the extra time off; Leonard and all-star forward Paul George had their minutes limited this season after they dealt with significant injuries in recent years.

The Bucks, Lakers and Clippers will travel to Disney World next week, where they will be enter quarantine at the Gran Destino Tower and begin group basketball activities for the first time since March. If the bubble holds up and play continues on schedule, contenders will remain in the Orlando area until a champion is crowned in mid-October.

“I’ll use the Navy SEALs as an example,” Rivers said. “They get deployed and don’t know the situation; they don’t know when exactly they’re going. But they keep preparing, [and they’re ready] when they’re called upon. The way I’m looking at it with our players [is very similar to that]. I feel like we’re going to be deployed for a mission in Orlando, and we have to have great mental toughness to finish it.”

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