Why Giannis and the Bucks are in a bad place

The Milwaukee Bucks’ start to the unconventional playoffs picked up right where it left off last May, when their road to the NBA Finals was hit with an international detour in Canada, as they lost their moxie at the border and never found it.

That moxie again failed to resurface Tuesday in the NBA’s Disney bubble, resulting in the Orlando Magic rolling in Game 1 of their first-round series against the team with the best record in the NBA.

It’s also worth noting the Magic shocked the Toronto Raptors in last year’s playoff opener before the Raptors righted themselves and became champions.

The Bucks, who were 14-points favorites in Game 1, are hoping for a similar result in this postseason run because the ghosts of playoffs past need to be exorcised.

A lot can change in a calendar year — or 15 months, even. Despite their 60-win record and romp through the first two rounds of the playoffs last year, there was no pressure on the Bucks to make it through a LeBron-less Eastern Conference having MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer on the same side.

The dismantling that Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors put on them in the East finals after falling behind two games was largely determined to be a Raptors team peaking at the right time, with the right player leading the way and not a Bucks failure.

Giannis Antetokounmpo fouls the Magic's Nikola Vucevic late in the Bucks' Game 1 loss on Tuesday. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo fouls the Magic's Nikola Vucevic late in the Bucks' Game 1 loss on Tuesday. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

But this all feels familiar following an underwhelming playoff opener, accompanied by a pressure-filled mission to cruise to the Finals that won’t allow for any excuses. If the Bucks weren’t prepared for the rigors of the postseason last year, there didn’t appear to be much modification to their psyche this time — so far.

Often times, they looked confused, aside from the soon-to-be two-time MVP putting up his usual numbers (31 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists). But playing from behind muted his effectiveness.

Like last year, the Bucks rolled through the league, their first punch often knocking out opponents who were barely worthy. It was when someone punched back that revealed the lack of counters from a team that never needed to make adjustments.

The way they play doesn’t require much variance, deploying their primary weapon is usually enough to stagger most teams on a nightly basis, but they had better figure out supplemental ways to beat teams with two eyes on Antetokounmpo and eight more waiting on him when he barrels down the lane.

If it’s Giannis vs. everybody, that’ll largely be good enough to get through this round — it’s hard to envision an upset on the scale of Denver shocking Seattle in the first round over 25 years ago — but getting past a hard-playing, well-coached Orlando Magic team isn’t the goal.

Or the next round.

Or even the conference finals.

It can’t be Giannis vs. everybody. Khris Middleton took another step this year, becoming a bona fide All-Star who registered remarkable efficiency and looked like the perfect complement to Antetokounmpo, not needing to dominate the ball or the floor to get his.

But he’ll be counted on to be better than 14 points of 4-of-12 shooting, six rebounds and four assists because the gap between the Bucks’ top two and everyone else seems to be a gulf, and Budenholzer has yet to display the chops to make adjustments when the game plan isn’t executed to perfection.

Perhaps that’s why Bucks guard George Hill — the only reserve to posit good numbers with 16 points and five assists but a minus-11 — said some “soul searching” must be done before Game 2. This soon?

“All year we’ve been thriving off our own fans, we don’t have that,” Hill said. “We haven’t figured it out yet. When you get hit in the mouth, you gotta throw the next punch.”

Hill referenced the home fans multiple times, a reasonable factor but one that affects everybody. And if there’s one team that doesn’t want or need nervous energy around it following a cringeworthy opener, it’s probably this bunch.

“Everybody feels a different type of way after this loss,” Antetokounmpo said. “Some people get in their feelings, get in the gym. For me, it’s get in the gym, figure out how we can win Game 2. I’m not trying to figure out myself and find myself. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the league. Everything will take care of itself.”

Perhaps its urgency of the moment Hill was referring to, and not even the belief that the Bucks’ future with their star lies on the result of these playoffs. Antetokounmpo’s free agency in 2021 will always be a topic until he signs an extension or declares his intentions, but the present is more pressing. The urgency of a likely two-time MVP not making the Finals will produce far more questions about his game than what jersey he’ll wear next.

The only back-to-back MVP post-merger to not have a trip to the Finals on his resume by the time he lifted that second Maurice Podoloff Trophy is Steve Nash — whose candidacy is routinely litigated by near winners.

Contenders in the East are disintegrating almost daily, with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons undergoing knee surgery and Boston’s Gordon Hayward being out for the next four weeks after injuring his ankle in the Celtics’ opener.

There’s no individual player who can stand man-up with Antetokounmpo — perhaps Miami's Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo come closest and relish the challenge — but there’s no reason to expect the Bucks to not make it to the Finals.

Kevin Durant is recovering — and tweeting.

Leonard is in the West, ready to give LeBron James the same blues he delivered to Antetokounmpo last year.

Nikola Vucevic had the game of his life with 35 and 14, making it look easy, but that won’t be repeated to the point to make the Bucks do anything but sweat.

“They played a good game, they made a lot of shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “Give it to Orlando, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, keep playing hard, keep playing together. There’s no magic wand you can point and everything will change.”

Until they right their wrongs of playoffs past, everybody will be sweating in Milwaukee — including a star they’re afraid will disappear if they don’t.

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