MILWAUKEE – Let’s get ahead of ourselves for a moment, shall we?
The version of the Milwaukee Bucks that we saw on Friday night – the version that turned the Toronto Raptors, ordinarily quite an excellent and balanced basketball team, into a pile of rubble that felt more like a junior varsity squad than the team that had the second-best regular-season record in the NBA – isn’t just capable of beating the Golden State Warriors.
That version of the Bucks will beat the Warriors.
What can you say about the Bucks’ performance in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals other than that it could portend a shift in the axis of power in the NBA, from the Bay Area to a place known more for beer, cheese curds and Old Fashioned’s than dominant NBA basketball?
From the tip of Game 2, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Bucks were world-destroyers. The first three possessions went like this: Giannis dunk. Giannis blocked shot. Giannis dunk. The Bucks tore through the Raptors in that first half, building up a 25-point lead and holding one of the NBA’s most efficient offenses to a meager 39 first-half points. The game was as good as over by the time the two teams disappeared into their locker rooms at halftime.
Here’s the wild part: Giannis Antetokounmpo was good in this game. Really good. But by his extraterrestrial standards, he was not great: 30 points, 17 rebounds, a handful of rim-crushing dunks, five assists, two blocks.
And therefore this version of the Bucks – the one that had the best net rating in the NBA this season, that has now tied the NBA record for 20-point wins in a single postseason with six, the one that ran the Raptors out of the building on Friday – isn’t even the best version of the Bucks.
“He’s incredible, and then you’re like, wow – I think he can be even better,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The great part about Giannis is he wants to be better. It’s just so unique to have a player like that wants to be great and yet wants more.”
Obviously, we do not see this version of the Bucks in every game. We didn’t see this version of the Bucks in Game 1. In fact, in Game 1 we saw a pretty poor version of the Bucks, at least in the first three quarters, when one of the NBA’s most 3-point-heavy offenses launched 35 3s and made only six of them. And that pretty poor version of the Bucks still beat the team with the second-best regular-season record in the NBA. That one was a gut-wrenching loss for the Raptors. They played well enough to win. They were clearly the best team on the floor for three quarters. They were tied with a couple of minutes left. They gave their best effort against a Bucks team that struggled mightily, and the only thing that matters is they lost.
The Game 1 missed opportunity still lingered in the air after Game 2 when Raptors wing Danny Green spoke to reporters.
“Reasons like tonight are why we’re so disappointed we let Game 1 slip away,” Green told reporters. “With how they shot the ball, we knew that was our chance to get them while they were rusty. They weren’t going to shoot that poorly two games in a row.”
They didn’t, of course. The Bucks didn’t win by launching a 3-point barrage exactly. They made 10 of their 32 3-pointers – a pedestrian number of 3s for one of the league’s most prolific 3-point shooting teams – but they wrecked the Raptors on the glass, they got to the free-throw line, and they moved the ball around, with 27 of their 42 made shots being assisted on.
What makes this team special is Giannis, of course, but what makes Giannis so much more special this season than the seasons before is how perfectly tuned his supporting cast is to his game. That’s why Friday night’s Bucks might have put visions in your heads of them toppling the Warriors. Six Bucks scored in double figures. Their bench was absolutely nails. Three bench players – George Hill, Malcolm Brogdonand Ersan Ilyasova – combined for 44 points. “That’s the Ersan we want,” Nikola Mirotic said afterward.
As the cliché goes, a series doesn’t start until the home team loses.
But the Raptors now find themselves in a mighty hole, having to win four of the next five against a Bucks team that looked unstoppable at times on Friday night. The clichéd series may not have started, but a narrative is certainly starting to take shape. It’s not a narrative that took shape during the regular season. The Bucks were still considered the team of tomorrow, even if they were spending today smashing people’s faces in.
I know it was just one half of basketball on Friday night that officially opened my eyes to this. And I know expecting the Bucks to have a half of basketball like that against the Warriors – or even having a half of basketball like that in the next two games in Toronto – is unlikely. But the narrative that’s developing with this Bucks team feels a little bit familiar.
I can remember another talented team with a transcendent and captivating young superstar who was about to win his first MVP award, with a new coach and a new offensive system that unlocked that superstar’s greatness. That team was the Warriors of 2014-15. I remember that team being filled with oddball players who’d been overlooked in earlier parts of their careers – Klay Thompson, Draymond Green– and yet they all fit together absolutely beautifully. I remember people doubting that team could topple the greatness that was LeBron.
Until they did it, and they took over the league.
And here we are again: A Bucks team with the likely MVP, with a new coach and a new offensive system that’s unlocked that young superstar’s greatness. It’s a team filled with guys who weren’t quite expected to be big-time NBA players; exactly one Buck who played on Friday night, Brook Lopez, was a lottery pick. They too all fit together beautifully. All season, we’ve doubted that they or anyone is capable of toppling the mighty Warriors and changing the power center of the league.
Until, perhaps, they do it.