For a few minutes, it looked like the Bucks would fend this off for another day. Down 2–0 in their second-round matchup against the fifth-seeded Miami Heat, the 56-win, top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks finally started to look like the 56-win, top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks late in the third quarter of Game 3 on Friday night. After Andre Iguodala hit a three to pull the Heat within one, the Bucks responded with a 14–2 run, during which Giannis Antetokounmpo bullied his way to a dunk and got fouled on another dunk attempt, to go up by 12. But instead of closing out strong, the Bucks followed up with the worst fourth quarter in playoff history, and now find themselves in crisis.
For the second year in a row, the Bucks ran roughshod through the regular season on the back of their planet-eating MVP. And, for the second year in a row, an elite young coach has locked Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint, and Milwaukee’s inability to pry it open will prove terminal. But where last year’s loss still left room for some optimism, the disaster currently unfolding in Orlando could bring on a reckoning for Milwaukee.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, this isn’t uncharted territory for Mike Budenholzer—not entirely, anyway. Just last year, Milwaukee was on the brink of a 3–0 lead over the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors until Kawhi Leonard tightened his death grip on Giannis and devoured the Bucks for four straight games. Going back even further, in 2014–15, Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals before getting nuked off the face of the earth at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Neither of those are like this. Butler and Adebayo are bona fide All-Stars, but they aren’t at the level of Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, and Miami’s role players don’t stack up with Toronto’s. And although they won 60 games, those Hawks ran up against a basketball celestial, and they certainly didn’t have one of their own like the Bucks do now (or even a player as good as Khris Middleton, for that matter). The Bucks have the best player in this series, better star power, and better depth than Miami. Through three games, they’ve yet to look like the better team.
It should be said: The Heat might be the Bucks’ worst nightmare this side of Los Angeles. If you were to genetically engineer the perfect Giannis-stopper, it’d look a whole lot like Bam Adebayo. South Beach’s newest defensive terror is one of a handful of players with the requisite blend of size, strength, speed, and smarts to hang with Antetokounmpo solo. Flanking Adebayo are neighborhood bully Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala, career wing-defenders who are more than capable of neutralizing Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Milwaukee’s suffocating defense is predicated on teams missing the shots Miami made at a better rate than every team besides the Utah Jazz during the regular season. And oh, by the way, they’re playing a playoff game in September and have been stranded in Disney World for nearly three months.
The problem is that, when teams consistently diarrhea their way out of the playoffs the way Bud’s teams have, outliers stop being outliers. Even if the Bucks had avoided the Heat, Budenholzer has looked completely outmatched by Erik Spoelstra, and there’s a not-completely-ludicrous argument that he and the other two remaining coaches in the East (Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse) are the best three coaches in the league. All three employ at least one young mega star and have similarly constructed rosters to Miami. They aren’t going away any time soon. The Bucks, as currently constructed, are still a virtual lock for the conference semifinals, and Giannis further developing his three-point shot—in spite of this series, he made genuine and significant progress this season—could render this all moot. A week ago, that seemed like a luxury that would propel the Greek Freak into demigod territory; the Heat have made abundantly clear that it’s an evolutionary necessity.
You might not know this, but Giannis’ deal expires after next season. As is tradition with any young hyper-ultra-megastar playing in a small market, the ‘is he leaving?’ speculation train picked up Giannis years ago. One of the biggest arguments for Giannis to stay in Milwaukee and buck that trend was that, unlike the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis, the Bucks have succeeded in building a juggernaut around Giannis. Antetokounmpo will be hard-pressed to find a better team than his current one (although, if reports are true, he already have eyes on a few familiar foes), and ultimately, the need for him to develop a reliable three-point shot won’t disappear if he leaves Milwaukee. But ask the Philadelphia 76ers if when a team gets so thoroughly dismantled,
Barring a championship, this day was always going to come. A hard-fought loss in the NBA Finals—hell, even the Eastern Conference Finals—would’ve still left an air of uncertainty. But getting eviscerated by a five-seed in the conference semis could release lethal toxins into the Bucks’ airspace. The Bucks have long known that this offseason would be their inflection point. Jimmy Butler and the Heat may have just altered the trajectory it takes.