The Milwaukee bucks and their superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo were the Eastern Conference favorites to make the NBA Finals when the playoffs started, but last night they dropped their third straight game to the Heat and are now on the brink of elimination.
Last season, the Bucks won 60 games and finish first in the East, but were taken out in the Eastern Conference Finals by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors. After Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason, the East was Milwaukee’s for the taking.
The Bucks once again finished atop the conference in the regular season, but now they are all but certain to be sent home early. So what happened?
The Heat finished 44-29 in the regular season, but their head coach Erik Spoelstra has always made his teams better than the sum of their parts. When Miami traded for Jimmy Butler over the summer, it got the scorer and defensive stopper that it needed to seriously threaten the East’s top teams. Coupled with the rapid development of Bam Adebayo, that move has transformed the team from cute also-ran to Finals contender. It also helps that Duncan Robinson has gone from undrafted rookie to three-point sniper in just one year.
Simply put, Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley are the best coach/executive combination in the NBA, and they are proving now that they can win even when they don’t have the best player in the NBA on their side.
Must be cool to be a Heat fan.
Being a Bucks fan used to seem fun as well, but with Antetokounmpo’s contract set to expire after the 2021 season, Milwaukee’s run of success might be coming to an end sooner than later. I’m a big fan of head coach Mike Budenholzer because, like Spoelstra, he gets the most out of the cards he’s dealt. However, a lack of playoff success is starting to become a trend for him. No one batted an eyelash when he failed to take an overachieving Hawks team to the Finals, but this year Budenholzer wasn’t the underdog anymore. He had the best team in the East and a superstar who won NBA MVP last year. This was supposed to be the year for Milwaukee and now it probably won’t be.
And what happens to superstar NBA players who find themselves in situations like that? Nowadays, they usually leave. LeBron James left his hometown to win a pair of titles in Miami. Anthony Davis forced a trade from New Orleans so that he wouldn’t be mired in mediocrity. Antetokounmpo is one year away from having to make a similar decision if the Bucks can’t make a historic comeback in this season or at least make it to the Finals in 2021.
Every NBA topic on every sports argument show used to be about James, but I have a feeling that the top subject will shift over the next few years. Now that Antetokounmpo has established himself as a top-three player in the game, pundits are going to demand that he validate his MVP trophy with a championship. “Does Giannis have what it takes to win a title?” is what they will start to ask every day on every show if he continues to falter in the playoffs. When Antetokounmpo becomes a free agent, it will be the biggest NBA story since James last hit the open market.
Speaking of James, his Lakers lost in Game 1 of their second round series to James Harden and the Houston Rockets. I didn’t give Houston much of a chance in this series, but after booking Rockets play-by-play voice Craig Ackerman on Mad Dog Sports Radio last night, I might become a believer. Ackerman isn’t exactly an objective observer, but he told Jim Memolo on our show that he is confident that the Lakers are a better match-up for Houston than the Thunder team that nearly upset the Rockets in the first round.
Los Angeles has the scoring and star power that Oklahoma City lacks, but it was the Thunder who were better equipped to defend Harden and Russell Westbrook on the perimeter. The Lakers don’t have the backcourt defenders they need to frustrate Houston’s dynamic duo, and that showed in Game 1 with the pair combined for 60 points on 50 percent shooting.
Sunday should be an exciting day of basketball with two of the game’s brightest stars desperately needing wins. For tonight, we get to see if Toronto can ride the momentum of their shocking buzzer-beater in Game 2 as they try to draw even in Game 4 against the Celtics. Later tonight, Denver has to at least challenge the Clippers in Game 2 if anyone is going to take it seriously for the next week.