Once the NBA revealed its plan to finish out the season, the questions turned to how the altered format, necessitated by a lengthy timeout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, might affect the Milwaukee Bucks’ chances of winning the franchise’s first NBA championship since 1971.
The Bucks were on the fast track toward a title when the season was suspended in mid-March. They had the NBA’s best record (53-12) and were heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference title. Only the two teams from Los Angeles — the Lakers and Clippers — seemed capable of stopping the Bucks.
Last week, the NBA announced it will bring the 22 teams still in postseason contention to Orlando, where each one will play eight regular-season games for playoff positioning before the league goes into a typical playoff format, with eight teams from each conference making the field. The biggest difference is the games will be at one site with no fans in the seats.
For the Bucks, the obvious downside is they won’t have the home-court advantage they worked so hard to get. They are 6½ games ahead of the Toronto Raptors for the top seed in the East and three games ahead of the Lakers for the top seed in the NBA. Only the Lakers have a realistic chance of catching them for the No. 1 overall seed and that would require a pratfall by the Bucks, the most consistent team in the league all season.
There is no way to minimize the importance of home-court advantage to the Bucks in the playoffs. They have an NBA-best 28-3 record at home this season. Over the past two seasons, they are 61-11 at Fiserv Forum — 67-13 if you include the playoffs. Even when they lost in six games to Toronto in the conference finals last year, the Bucks were 2-1 playing in front of a home crowd that generates an electric atmosphere nightly.
If you can get past the fact Milwaukee’s home-court advantage has vanished, however, there are positive signs for the Bucks. There are solid reasons to think the four-month layoff and resumption of play in an empty arena might play into their hands.
The most important is the Bucks might be a better team in late July than they were when the season was halted on March 11. The time off should allow them to regain their energy and their health, both of which appeared to be waning in March.
The Bucks’ consistency through the season had been remarkable. Prior to March, they were the only team in the NBA that hadn’t lost consecutive games. But after going 52-8 to open the season, they ran into a rough patch, losing four of their last five games, including their last three.
There were extenuating circumstances in that final stretch, though. All four losses were on the road, three against playoff-bound opponents. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who should win his second consecutive NBA MVP award, injured his left knee in a loss to the Lakers and sat out the final two games. In a loss at Denver, coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t use seven of his rotational players. Regardless, it was the first time all season the Bucks looked vulnerable.
The time off should do them some good, however, because it’s hard to go wire-to-wire in the NBA. As well as the Bucks had played, a six-month season with three to four games a week is just too long for a team to sustain its energy at a high level. A mental and physical break might be just what the Bucks needed to regroup and regain their momentum.
Unless the players avoided conditioning and skill work during the layoff, the Bucks should be well-rested. Wesley Matthews, Eric Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill, Kyle Korver, Marvin Williams and the Lopez twins have all seen their 30th birthday, so they should come back refreshed for the stretch run. And remember how Antetokounmpo complained about the physical toll the playoffs were taking on him last year? He should be good to go this time around.
Don’t discount the importance of good health, either. After fearing the worst, Antetokounmpo received good news when an MRI showed his knee injury to be minor. Hill, a key figure off the bench, was battling a groin injury in March and he, too, should be back to full strength.
Another reason the Bucks might succeed in Orlando is the playoff path in front of them doesn’t look overly daunting. Assuming they are the No. 1 seed in the East, the Bucks’ first-round opponent would be Brooklyn, Orlando or Washington. They are 7-0 against those teams. The potential second-round opponents — Miami, Indiana and Philadelphia — all present problems, but the Bucks are deeper and more consistent than any of them.
Milwaukee avoided a potential bump in the road when the NBA kept the conferences intact for the playoffs. There had been talk of seeding the teams regardless of conference, which would have created a potential scenario where the Bucks would have had to play the Clippers to make the Finals and the Lakers in the Finals. Now, they’ll only have to beat one of those teams to win the title.
Some have said this year’s NBA champion will have an asterisk next to it because the altered season has damaged the integrity of the postseason. That’s nonsense. If anything, the level playing field in Orlando will create a truer champion. Indeed, if the Bucks win the title after having home-court advantage ripped from their grasp, the feat would be all the more remarkable.
Contact Tom Oates
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