This may sound counter-intuitive since the Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 NBA Finals, but they are once again the team to beat in the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
As is the case with many teams and athletes in the Midwest, the Bucks have been flying under the radar all season— injuries to multiple players on the roster have also caused them to lose several games than many would not have expected, which has contributed to their unassuming aura around the NBA.
Make no mistake about it, however, the Bucks are not going to go quietly into the night, and if you don’t believe that, then you have not tuned into enough of Milwaukee’s games.
Milwaukee’s quest for a repeat
The Bucks’ recent 118-116 win over the Philadelphia 76ers was a perfect encapsulation of their ability as a team and why they are so scary in the playoffs.
Milwaukee was down by double-digits for a large chunk of the third quarter and headed into the fourth down by eight points. James Harden was in the midst of his best game in a Philadelphia uniform (and ultimately ended up with 32 points, nine assists, and five rebounds) and Joel Embiid (29 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists) had a chance to put the final stamp on his MVP case.
What the Bucks did to them was just more of the same— more of the brilliant, unstoppable, indescribable same.
Milwaukee first buried a string of threes, with Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez all taking turns scorching the net. They then tightened down their defense and contained a Phili team with four legit scorers plus shooters galore.
Then, most importantly, they Giannis’d their way to victory. The two-time MVP and last year’s Finals MVP finished the evening with one very bad dad joke at the post-game podium, as well as 40 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists, including a game-winning block on an Embiid put-back with less than two seconds left. The block, originally called a goaltend, came after Antetokounmpo had relentlessly poured in points to guide his team back into the lead and showed why he is the most impactful player in basketball.
“Spectacular block,” said Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers.
“Just a special block,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
The win put the Bucks a half-game out of first place in the East (they are now one game behind the Miami Heat for first).
The Bucks to win it all again?
So, why was this one game against Philadelphia so important?
Well, that can be answered in multiple ways. First and foremost, it showed that the Bucks are capable of rising to the occasion on a national stage against a formidable opponent who has it all to play for: a potential number-one seed, an MVP case, and a chance at (Harden’s) redemption.
Giannis also flashed new elements to his game, including a running mid-range pull-up jumper and a quick-fire three-point shot, as well as his usual interior offensive and defensive dominance.
The key for the Bucks moving forward is keeping all of their players healthy, because if they are, no other team in the league has a supporting cast that can line up with theirs. Just look at the box score from Tuesday’s game: the trio of Middleton, Lopez, and Holiday combined for 57 points, 20 rebounds, 17 assists, and nine threes.
Milwaukee’s main challengers for the Eastern Conference pennant are the Miami Heat, Sixers, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, and Brooklyn Nets. They are +280 favorites to win the East and +600 to capture the Larry O’Brien trophy.
There is plenty of basketball yet to be played, but with every game the Bucks play, a warning is sent to the rest of the league.