When the Milwaukee Bucks face the Miami Heat, last year’s MVP and likely this year’s will be on the floor, leading the way for the team with the NBA’s best record and one of the clearest paths to a title.
But that team, the Bucks, and that player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, are in trouble. Down 2-0 to Miami, a loss tonight would essentially bury their season. Jimmy Butler shredded them in Game 1 by scoring 40 points in a 115-104 Heat win and Game 2 ended with Butler hitting two free throws with 0.0 on the clock, after being fouled by Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were 1-4 against the Heat in the regular season this year and Miami’s defenders have contained Giannis in the series thus far. Even when Kris Middleton started hitting shots early in Game 2, Miami’s so malleable with Bam Adebayo at center that they created open threes all night for their expert shooters like Duncan Robinson.
The Heat have just been the tougher team. They are the tougher team. And although that just sounds like an old-man sports columnist take, Milwaukee doesn’t have the edge that Miami’s playing with. Butler is one of the toughest players in basketball, who has shown no patience for teams that can’t match his resolve. And we’re seeing why. Giannis was flat out not good in Game 1 wasn’t at his full Giannis capacity in Game 2, and the rest of the roster hasn’t made up for it. “Playoff Bud” is making its way back with Mike Budenholzer’s playoff shortcomings coming back into focus.
If the Bucks lose tonight, they’re as good as done. No team in NBA history has ever come back from being down 3-0, and the Bucks have shown no reason to think they could be the first. Even though Giannis stuffed the stat sheet in Game 2, it hasn’t been enough. We’re still waiting for a dominant performance where he decimates his competition for 40 minutes, the kinds of performances that make stars into legends.
And now it’s starting to creep in.
That “Are we sure…” question.
That little voice in the backs of all our heads that start to wonder. The voice that starts to doubt. That voice that gets us to check Basketball Reference and realize there… isn’t a ton of playoff achievement for one Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s not fair to start lamenting the playoff failures of a player who’s still only 25 years old. Giannis is one of the best players in basketball, and he’s certainly closer to one than he is to three. But it’s the circle of life in the NBA. Every superstar we have was beloved early in their career as we fantasized about what he could potentially be. But after a couple years, our fantasies have not been met, and we start to ask why. If the Bucks lose this series, there will be countless tv segments questioning his greatness and potential legacy if he can’t get it done in the playoffs. We’ll all ponder, “Would he really leave Milwaukee if they have another playoff disappointment? What does THAT do to his legacy?”
That’s all it takes. Two years of playoff disappointment and not getting into the finals despite being the best player in the league. The narrative will turn just like that. We did it with Michael Jordan before his run and LeBron James before his. Then they won their rings and it stopped (For James, it didn’t fully stop until he won in Cleveland). We did it with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, then he went and won one in Golden State and now there are people who still don’t want to give him credit for it. We’ve done it with James Harden for years now. We’ll do it with Luka Dončić if three years go by and Dallas hasn’t been to the finals.
But if the script flips and Milwaukee wins tonight with Giannis as an unstoppable force, the Bucks can get back on track. Just last year, the Toronto Raptors were down 2-0 before peeling off four wins in a row against *checks notes* Milwaukee. If anything, Giannis can cement his current standing as a superstar by willing Milwaukee to a series victory. But if he doesn’t, this cruel, annoying world called sports media will turn on him until he wins a title.