The Milwaukee Bucks staved off an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat with a gutsy, 118-115 overtime win on Sunday that showed they had more heart and competitive character than they showed previously.
The adjustments they needed to make with Antetokounmpo, they made out of necessity without him — perhaps playing over their heads out of desperation, opening the door to a possible return on Tuesday for Game 5 if his ailing ankle allows.
But the Bucks have made their bed to this point and shouldn’t depend on a miracle to bail them out of an insurmountable hole, thus jeopardizing their star player’s future in the process. Antetokounmpo’s own flaws have been highlighted in this series, even though there’s more evolution to come in his growing game. He’s a bona fide superstar but in need of counters before he can become a champion.
That’s on him, a fact well-known before this series began. It would be the case if they wound up making it out of this series, with coaching wizards Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse waiting with long, rangy wings to work the same magic.
There’s more than a second straight disappointing postseason finish on the line here, more than an evaluation of coach Mike Budenholzer’s future when Antetokounmpo will have the chance to extend his contract with the Bucks this fall.
The careers that took winding turns immediately come to mind, instances where the needs of the franchise came before the future of the player: Grant Hill trying to prove his toughness in Detroit on a bad ankle in 2000, or Kevin Durant hearing too much outside noise in last year’s Finals, gamely returning for a temporary lift to the Golden State Warriors.
Hill’s career was never the same, not an MVP but a generational player who needed to be protected from whatever agenda was top of mind. An ankle sprain turned into breaks after breaks then a shell of a player who couldn’t perform in his prime.
In the moment, Hill’s ailment didn’t look that way, and neither does Antetokounmpo’s, but a slight limp could turn into anything.
It was easy to tell Durant wasn’t right when he put on his best face in Toronto last June, giving the world a window into what could’ve been a miraculous story before reality let everyone know storybook endings rarely occur in these circumstances.
Antetokounmpo, competitive as he is, is cut from the same cloth. He’s made it a point to separate himself from the buddy-buddy culture that has permeated through the league for the last decade or so, and given how pronounced his limp was following Game 3, he would want to go out there at even half-strength.
But the Warriors should’ve protected Durant from himself, with the benefit of hindsight and the somber tone that was taken following his Achilles injury.
The same should be said for the Bucks, even though they have more invested in Antetokounmpo than the Warriors did with Durant. You don’t build a billion-dollar arena in a sprawling downtown district with the thought of trading your superstar a year before free agency when times get tricky.
One can question the strategic moves the Bucks organization has made since the discovery of Giannis, the superstar, but not developing the strategy itself. They’ve gone all-in with the belief of keeping Antetokounmpo and hoping he’ll sign a supermax deal, a $250 million pact that would not only keep this train moving but confirm the Bucks as being a bona fide franchise, a contender in an Eastern Conference that has a hole near the top.
But Antetokounmpo is entering a different stratum, as a second MVP will cement him as a player who belongs to history, not just today. That requires him to conduct himself as someone who’ll be judged accordingly, as someone who needs multiple Finals appearances and unlimited chances at championships — and to be pragmatic about whether the Bucks can truly surround him with the proper personnel and coaching to win.
The last two postseason runs have exposed flaws in the Bucks’ system and their personnel, even if it took perfect storms to do it. Last year’s Toronto Raptors rode a desperate group of hungry veterans and a determined Kawhi Leonard to erase a 2-0 deficit, showing Antetokounmpo’s flaws in the process. These Miami Heat have more shooters and a star player who looks like they’ve been preparing to take down the Bucks all season long.
It could merely be a case of two bad matchups, two times in a row, right?
Even if that’s so, it’ll be hard to sell Antetokounmpo on lightning striking twice, not without promises for some wholesale change.
They’re capped out, with four players making big money and not easy to move in an uncertain trade market given the league’s economics in the aftermath of this pandemic.
Firing Budenholzer is likely something the front office didn’t expect headed into these playoffs considering his pedigree and his transformation of the Bucks into a top regular-season team.
But the Bucks’ struggles in the playoffs cannot be ignored, even if one can argue he’s been worked by Erik Spoelstra and Nurse in consecutive playoff runs. The Bucks don’t look prepared for how different the playoffs are from the regular season, and they should come with an alternate gameplan next season.
They can’t rely on Antetokounmpo as the center of everything and making him a player who operates from different parts of the floor will make him more dangerous when it counts as opposed to just being an October to April juggernaut.
This series isn’t over, but unless the Heat have an uncharacteristic meltdown in the coming days and Antetokounmpo turns into Wolverine with incredible healing powers, it will be in enough time.
But time is of the essence, for the Bucks and for Antetokounmpo — and the clock has already been ticking.