Opinion: These are not your NBA Finals-caliber Bucks. So where are they?
In one of the great Twilight Zone episodes titled "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" a snowstorm maroons folks in a diner leaving them to wonder if an alien is among them.
It has me thinking, while watching the NBA playoffs in a bubble in August: Will the real Milwaukee Bucks please stand up?
Because the restart Bucks are not the same Bucks that were 53-12 and had the NBA’s best defense, the sixth-best offense and the league’s best net rating. They possessed the talent and stats that indicated another deep postseason run. And that still may be the case.
But they’re not that team right now.
2020 has been its own special Twilight Zone so why not the NBA playoffs, too?
Milwaukee handling Orlando was supposed to be the surest of sure things of any first-round matchup, but the eighth-seeded and injury-decimated Magic outplayed and stunned the Bucks on their way to a 122-110 victory in Game 1 of their series on Tuesday.
The Magic didn’t just scratch out a victory. They earned it, putting away the Bucks in an impressive performance.
Nik Vucevic had 35 points and 13 rebounds, including 15 points on three-pointers. Terrence Ross scored 18 points and was joined in double figures by Gary Clark (15), Markelle Fultz (15), D.J. Augustin (11 points, 11 assists) and James Ennis (11 points).
The Magic were without Aaron Gordon (hamstring strain), Michael Carter-Williams (foot strain), Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL) and Mo Bamba (post-COVID-19 evaluation).
Orlando’s activity and movement on offense had Milwaukee flat-footed and scrambling on defense, and Magic coach Steve Clifford put together a stellar game plan.
Khris Middleton dribbles around James Ennis III. (Photo: Pool, Getty Images)
“I don’t think our group underestimated Orlando,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They’re a very good team. They’re very well-coached. They’ve got a lot of good players. They’ve got weapons.”
Orlando may not win another game in the series. But that’s not the point.
Forget the result. That’s not important in the context of the Bucks’ big picture dream of winning a championship. Forget that Milwaukee trailed Orlando 92-79 headed into the fourth quarter and 112-97 with 4:50 left in the game.
It's the larger issue of returning to championship-caliber basketball.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo put up his usual great numbers – 31 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists. But he needs help.
Through eight restart games and one playoff game, Milwaukee looks average. For certain, Budenholzer had a plan for building toward games in late September and October. He spread out minutes and didn’t want to overextend anyone in the restart. Makes sense.
But at a certain point, the Bucks need to start playing like a team that can earn its way to the Finals.
Throughout his postgame news conference, Budenholzer used the word aggressive and didn't think the Bucks played with the same force as Orlando. “We have to step up and match that,” he said.
The Bucks struggled offensively, and that will happen from time to time. But defense is the one facet of the game the Bucks used to crush teams this season.
Milwaukee allowed 101.6 points per 100 possessions before COVID-19 suspended the season in March. But in eight restart games, it allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions, and in the first game of the playoffs, it allowed 114 points per 100 possessions.
“We’ve got to be better on that end of the court,” Budenholzer said.
Bucks guard George Hills knows something is off and said they need to do some soul searching. “We haven’t been ourselves, and we have to figure that out,” said Hill, mentioning the strangeness of life inside the bubble.
Without the normalcy of a regular playoffs with home and road games and travel, the complexion of the postseason is different, and the team that adjusts to the unusual nature of the circumstances will prosper.
That’s not Milwaukee, not right now.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt
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