Still basking in the glow of the franchise’s first championship in 50 years, the Milwaukee Bucks predictably staggered out of the gate early this season and looked like a team still nursing a nasty champagne hangover.
Of course, it also didn’t help that superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo sent a scare throughout all of Wisconsin with an offseason declaration about his health. He told a Greek TV station over the summer that he played hurt throughout The NBA Finals and is still experiencing pain in the left knee that he hyperextended in July.
While the Bucks did get off to a shaky 6-8 start — one that included four puzzling home losses — they have since responded with a torrid 17-5 stretch to push themselves back near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee’s stirring come-from-behind defeat of the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day and their beatdown of the Orlando Magic on Tuesday should serve as alerts to the rest of the NBA that Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo, and Co. have recovered from their early-season malaise and rash of injuries. Also, there’s this: The Bucks once again look like back-to-back championship threats and, quite possibly, the NBA’s team to beat.
“We’ve had good stretches of basketball. When we’ve been healthy and had everybody — just like every team in the league — that’s when we’re at our best,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said in a press conference on Tuesday in Orlando. “I think the focus coming out (of training camp) was pretty good, to be honest with you. We had some things that we dealt with, and we didn’t play as well as we would have liked. But that’s just part of the season. We’ve just got to keep pushing now to try and get better and better.”
Antetokounmpo’s status as a dynamic and game-changing NBA superstar was never in question since he blossomed into full-on “Greek Freak” mode in recent years.
However, whispers did surface about his playoff shortcomings and inability to lead Milwaukee to the promised land after his Bucks came up short in the 2018-19 playoffs (losing to the Toronto Raptors) and the 2019-20 playoffs (losing to the Miami Heat). Also, there were plenty of questions about whether Antetokounmpo would ever have a strong enough supporting cast around him with Middleton, Holiday, and Brook Lopez to battle today’s NBA AAU-like “Super Teams.”
Heck, the Bucks weren’t even the favorites of many NBA experts to win it all last season. After the Brooklyn Nets added to their enormous firepower by trading for James Harden and signing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin to pair with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they were the vogue pick to be championship favorites ahead of the Bucks.
But a couple of funny things happened to the Nets en route to their championship coronation. Irving and Harden got hurt in the playoffs, and Durant’s size 18 shoe was just across the 3-point line on a clutch late shot that could have vanquished Milwaukee’s championship quest once again.
The Bucks ultimately rallied in overtime of that edge-of-your-seat Game 7 to beat the Nets behind Antetokounmpo’s 40-point, 13-rebound effort over 50 minutes. Eventually, Milwaukee would thrash the Atlanta Hawks in six games and rally from an 0-2 start to topple the upstart Phoenix Suns in a taut NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo, of course, was the driving force in Milwaukee winning its first title since Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson accomplished the feat for the Bucks in 1971. In last summer’s championship-deciding series, “The Greek Freak” not only torched the Suns for 35.2 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, and 1.2 SPG to win MVP honors, but he also had a block at the rim that was equal parts tone-setting and jaw-dropping. Undoubtedly, TV networks will show Antetokounmpo’s soaring Game 4 block of Phoenix center Deandre Ayton for years to come, and it will forever serve as the defining moment in the Milwaukee superstar’s growing legacy.
A very short offseason, a championship hangover, and several injuries slow the Bucks to start the 2021-22 season
With the 2020-21 NBA season not ending until July 20 and Middleton and Holiday helping Team USA win a gold medal in the Summer Olympics, there wasn’t much time to rest and recover for the Bucks before the start of this season.
The wear and tear of the playoffs and the short offseason were likely reasons behind a rash to injuries to several key cogs. Brook Lopez (back surgery), Donte DiVincenzo (ankle pain), Antetokounmpo (sore calf, COVID), Holiday (ankle sprain), and Middleton (COVID) missed time early on with injuries and illnesses.
“I wouldn’t say it was a hangover; it felt like we never really even stopped playing,” Holiday admitted in a press conference, referring to the short turnaround from the NBA Finals to the opening of training camp. “We had a couple of injuries, and guys were out at different times. Then, we found our groove, and the next thing you know, we had a bunch of people out with COVID — not just us because everybody around the league is going through it.”
Milwaukee suffered ugly losses to Minnesota, San Antonio, and New York early in the season, and Holiday had to shoulder much of the load when Antetokounmpo missed two stints.
Not surprisingly, Milwaukee’s recent hot streak has coincided with it getting significantly healthier. While almost every team has recently had to use free-agent signings and G League call-ups to bolster their roster, the Bucks went into Tuesday with just one player — Lopez and his surgically repaired back — on the injured list.
“We felt like when (GM) Jon (Horst) put together the roster that it was going to be very deep,” Budenholzer said. “When you look around the league and see what other teams are having to do, we’re very fortunate.”
Healthy and happy Bucks are finally starting to look like championship contenders again — much to the dismay of other top teams in the Eastern Conference
The Milwaukee Bucks’ championship hangover, injury troubles, and slow start likely delighted teams in the Eastern Conference hoping to make a run to the NBA Finals. However, what they have seen of late from the suddenly surging Bucks can’t make them happy.
Middleton (18.4 PPG) and Holiday (17.8 PPG) are providing Antetokounmpo (27.4 PPG) with plenty of support, and Bobby Portis (15.8 PPG) is enjoying a career season while filling in for the injured Lopez.
Four straight wins have the Bucks on an impressive 17-5 run that has made the championship hangover and the slow start to the season a distant memory. Now that they are better rested and recovered from last season’s wear and tear, Milwaukee looks to be a legitimate threat to become the first team since the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors to win back-to-back NBA titles.
“Physically, maybe it was hard for us early in the season, but mentally, no, it wasn’t,” Middleton said of the slow start in a Tuesday night news conference. “We had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup early on, and when that happens, it’s hard to build rhythm. Everybody in the league is going through it right now, so for us to all be healthy now — except for one guy, really — we’ve got to try and take advantage of this moment.”
Bucks are still beasts of the East, but do they have enough to beat West powers like the Warriors or Suns in order to repeat
Milwaukee proved last season that home-court advantage in the NBA Finals can sometimes be overrated as it rallied from a 2-0 hole, won a Game 5 in Phoenix and eventually captured the title on its home floor. If the Bucks do return to The Finals, they might be in a similar predicament after the way the Warriors and Suns opened the season in torrid fashion. Golden State and Phoenix already have five-game leads on the Bulls in the NBA standings.
Undoubtedly, the Bucks and Nets are on another collision course. This time around, Milwaukee will most likely be pushed even harder by a Brooklyn squad that has as much firepower as any team in the league with Harden and Irving healthy and paired with Durant. Others in the East, such as the retooled Chicago Bulls and the venerable Miami Heat, could also pose playoff challenges to a Bucks’ squad looking to repeat.
Those top teams missed a golden opportunity to bury the Bucks early in the season when they were beat up with injuries and struggling to find any sort of rhythm. Now, Milwaukee is back on track and resembling the deep and dynamic squad that won it all last season. Rest assured, that’s a terrifying thought to other teams hoping to unseat the Bucks as champions come June.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference