The Bucks’ playoff run now has a larger purpose

  • NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
  • Former contributor and editor at NPR

When the Milwaukee Bucks left their hotel on Wednesday to ride over to AdventHealth Arena, they were an elite NBA team from a small market looking to complete a commonplace task: dispatching a No. 8 seed en route to the second round of the postseason.

But in the three days since they decided not to take the court in protest of excessive police violence, they came to stand for something much greater than championship aspirations. By virtue of that act of defiance, the Bucks’ postseason journey evolved from more than a drive to 16 wins in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy. When they polished off the Orlando Magic on Saturday with a 118-104 victory to advance to the conference semifinals, they did so as the embodiment of the contemporary professional athlete — one who is as dedicated to the cause of change as they are to their craft.

“It was unbelievable,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We didn’t play, then baseball didn’t play. Then the other NBA teams were not playing. … Soccer players were not going to play, so it’s huge. We have a big platform. People are looking at us, and we have to set the right example and they’re going to follow.”

Though it might not have been their primary intention, the Bucks are now the team that carries the mantle of activism in the 2020 NBA playoffs. The Bucks’ hopeful title run is now endowed with a larger purpose, and that makes extending that title run deep into the postseason all the more imperative.

But there is ultimately basketball to be played, and coming into Game 5, the Bucks still hadn’t quite recaptured the dominance of their pre-COVID-19 romp through the regular season. Believers and doubters can each find something in the Bucks’ first-round series to bolster their faith or skepticism. For those who look at the Bucks and see the NBA’s best two-way team featuring the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and recently crowned Defensive Player of the Year, the Game 1 hiccup against Orlando is no more of a premonition than the Toronto Raptors’ Game 1 loss to Orlando last spring. The Raptors were champions nine weeks later. And for those who don’t see the same Bucks team that rolled through the regular season, an unexceptional performance against the Magic on the heels of an uninspiring slate of seeding games didn’t do much to quell that doubt.

After that Game 1 loss to Orlando, the Bucks’ players and staff determined that their approach might have been too reliant on deliberate game-planning at the expense of just abiding by their principles. For instance, just because a long-range shot attempt from Magic guard Markelle Fultz represents a good outcome for the Bucks’ defense doesn’t mean defenders should yield him unlimited space. That space can endow a young player such as Fultz with comfort and confidence, and that comfort and confidence can translate into opportunity and execution.

The Bucks responded simply by being themselves: picking up the ball sooner and more aggressively, even if the ball handler has a suspect shot. The group stopped seeing the Magic as a collection of opposing players each with his own scouting report, and more as a unit that could be contained if the Bucks executed their formula of ball pressure and cordoning off the paint.

On Saturday, the Bucks’ protected the lane with authority, as Orlando picked up only 32 points in the paint — their average during the regular season was 45.4 per game. Milwaukee’s defenders walled off penetration, and on the occasions when the Magic’s ball handlers made incursions inside, they were swiftly pushed back by multiple bodies. This was a trend carried over from the past few games. The result: four straight wins in which the Bucks surrendered only 98.8 points per 100 possessions — the top mark among playoff teams.

Offensively, the Bucks aren’t at full throttle yet, but they’re making progress. They got most of what they wanted — only 12 of their 88 shot attempts were from midrange. Antetokounmpo was his usual model of efficiency (28 points, 11-for-17 field goals, 3-for-6 from long range). Khris Middleton continued his upward trajectory with 21 points, but he also functioned as a creator against an aggressive Orlando blitz. His function as a playmaker is essential to Milwaukee’s prospects.

For a dominant top seed like Milwaukee that won more than 80% of its games before the bubble, balancing core identity with game strategy can be fraught with these kinds of tensions. In each round, the Bucks will confront another series of riddles that will challenge that identity. If they try to solve that specific problem with a specific adjustment, will it compromise that core identity to an unhealthy degree? That question will be amplified in Milwaukee’s conference semifinals series against the Miami Heat.

What appeared to be a three-team race for Eastern Conference supremacy now has a formidable fourth candidate — Miami. One scan of the Heat’s sturdy rotation reveals why: A two-way shotmaker who can beat you one-on-one (Jimmy Butler), a versatile, big man who can create for any teammate and defend any position (Bam Adebayo), and a prober at point guard who at his best looks like Steve Nash (Goran Dragic).

The Heat put a ton of long-range shooting on the floor (they ranked second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and torched the Bucks in the regular season from beyond the arc with 55 buckets in three games), and their supporting cast runs deep in ball skills (Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro). The Heat’s athleticism enables them to throw any number of defensive schemes at opponents. Other than Toronto and Boston, no NBA defense switched more effectively more often than Miami, according to Second Spectrum data.

“It’s going to be a great series,” Milwaukee center Brook Lopez said. “They obviously have a lot of talented players, but even beyond that they just play so hard every single minute they are on the court, whoever is on the court. So we’re absolutely going to have to go out and match or exceed that, and that’s something this team has typically always done, and been built to do. It’s going to be a fun series. I’m glad to be part of it, and I can’t wait for it to start.”

Every team that has ever rolled through a regular season but has yet to meet expectations picks up an albatross or two along the way. The Heat will not be a forgiving opponent. Miami’s arsenal of long, smart defenders rendered Antetokounmpo ineffective in both isolation and pick-and-roll actions during the teams’ three meetings this season (the one place he hurt the Heat was in transition). Secondary playmaking by Middleton, and penetration by Eric Bledsoe will be vital to decongesting the half court for Milwaukee.

And on the other side of the ball, the Bucks will encounter the same test from Miami presented to them by Orlando and Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s big man, who drained 18 3-pointers over the five first-round games. Which shot attempts are the Bucks willing to live with? At times, that question will be posed with great force by the Heat’s shooters, including Kelly Olynyk, Miami’s stretchy center, who will very likely challenge Lopez to venture from his roost in the paint by launching 3s from the perimeter.

It’s entirely possible the Bucks will pay a cost for their conviction that cutting off the likes of Butler and Dragic from the paint are priorities No. 1 through 10. The same might be true of their inability to find their own route to the basket against the Heat’s active wave of defenders and helpers that keeps offenses guessing.

Yet the Bucks have enough evidence that their design for winning can be an effective one, even if they have to balance form with function. They’ll also carry the weight of the moment as the team that sparked something unprecedented in pro sports. The world got to know the Bucks this week and, consequently, will be watching them with intent. The further they advance, the brighter the spotlight.

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