At this point in his career, the biggest knock against Giannis Antetokounmpo is his lack of an NBA championship. Over the past several seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t clear the final hurdle in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In fact, the central subplot of 2020’s free agency was trying to assemble a supporting cast that could inspire Giannis to stay in Wisconsin and fight for a title. While all of those efforts seemed to be for naught after two postseason games against the Brooklyn Nets, Lady Luck has since intervened.
Thanks to some crippling injuries on Brooklyn’s side, Antetokounmpo and his Bucks have evened up the series and now seem to be sitting firmly in the driver’s seat. While fans might not like to admit it, that reversal of fortunes helps to underscore one essential sporting reality: luck does matter.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have had some bad luck in previous playoff campaigns
Over the past several years, the Bucks have emerged as the class of the Eastern Conference. Despite that reality, Antetokounmpo is yet to set foot in the NBA Finals.
During the 2019 campaign, the Bucks entered the playoffs on the back of a 60-win season. After securing easy victories in both the first round and the conference semifinals, the club hit a snag in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite being the better team on paper, Giannis and company couldn’t overcome the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard proved to be a man on a mission and sent Milwaukee home early.
A similar script emerged during an unconventional 2020 postseason. Once again, the Bucks posted the league’s best record and cruised through the first round. They then met the Miami Heat and fell in the conference semifinals.
Without making too many excuses for the Bucks, who have had their share of struggles running a half-court offense, it’s easy to see how they became the victims of circumstance. Beyond Antetokounmpo’s bad ankle, Milwaukee had the added pressure of representing their city and pushing for social change after the murder of George Floyd. Giannis himself even admitted that it was hard to balance basketball and working for a greater cause at the same time.
Unlucky injuries have given the Bucks an advantage against the Brooklyn Nets
Heading into the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, it seemed like the Bucks were doomed to suffer through another disappointing postseason. For all of Antetokounmpo’s talent, he seemed overmatched by the Nets’ Big Three. Fate, however, has since intervened.
During Game 1 of the series, James Harden injured his hamstring. While Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant proved to be more than capable of picking up the slack, Brooklyn is now facing a new problem. The Bucks narrowly won Game 3 in Milwaukee, then, during Game 4, Irving turned his ankle. With two of the Nets’ stars on the sideline, Giannis and company secured their second victory, knotting the series at two games apiece.
While Harden and Irving’s futures remain up in the air, we do know that both men will be out of action for Game 5. A Bucks win would give them a 3-2 lead heading back to their home court. At that point, they’ll be favored to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, where they could get a bit of extra luck thanks to Joel Embiid’s torn meniscus.
It’s also worth noting that there’s been a bit of luck on the other side of the bracket, where LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers crashed out of the playoffs in the first round. While there are no easy match-ups remaining at this point of the season, whoever reaches the NBA Finals will be glad they’re not meeting the defending champions.
The Bucks’ reversal of fortunes shows just how much of a role luck can play
To be clear, everyone’s perception of luck is dependent on their own fandom; a good break for the Bucks is a terrible twist of fate for the Nets. Regardless of rooting preference, though, Antetokounmpo’s situation is a clear illustration of just how much fortune can affect everything within professional sports.
If we assume that, without injuries, the Nets cruise to an easy series victory, then the 2020-21 campaign becomes a disaster for the Bucks. In theory, they kept Giannis by promising him a roster capable of competing for a championship. Losing in the second round would force the entire organization to scramble and see what they could do to turn things around.
On a more individual level, an early playoff exit would affect everyone on the Bucks. Giannis, for better or worse, would probably be discussed as a great regular-season performer who can’t make it over the hump. Head coach Mike Budenholzer, fairly or not, would be remembered as the guy who couldn’t put the Greek Freak in a position to succeed. The list goes on and on.
If the Bucks can beat the Nets and make a run to the NBA title — let’s ignore the likelihood of that outcome for a moment — everything changes. Milwaukee’s front office will be praised for keeping Giannis and staying the course. Antetokounmpo will receive credit for leading his team to the title. Even role players will have the added boost of an NBA title on their resume; that can add a few more million to any deal in free agency.
And what would the turning point be between those two narratives? Not a savvy coaching decision or an impassioned locker room speech, but a series of injures that simply boil down to luck.
In the world of sports, it’s easy to think of things as following somewhat of a formula. If you have the best players, you win more games, and, in turn, winning those games gets you to the top of the heap. Luck, however, is always on hand to keep everyone on their toes. It might not be fun to grapple with — just ask Nets fans who see their season potentially slipping away — but, for better or worse, it’s part of the equation. Let’s not pretend that it doesn’t exist and shape just about every narrative around.