Before the world turned upside-down in mid-March, the Milwaukee Bucks were in the midst of a historically great season. Of course, that incredible season had to stop for a few months on account of the (still absolutely serious) COVID-19 pandemic. When it came time to “restart” the season—or, more accurately, to play eight more regular season games—in “the bubble” at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, the Bucks held a 6.5-game lead over the Eastern Conference’s next-best team and, frankly, needed to do very little in order to claim the East’s top playoff seed (and the NBA’s best record).
With the top seed and league-best record claimed, those eight games completed, and the remainder of the playoff teams decided, it’s time to see if the Milwaukee Bucks will be able to finish what they started, earn a title in “the bubble,” and emerge as champions of the single weirdest season in NBA history. The team’s playoff run starts this afternoon, so here’s our last-minute playoff preview.
Giannis is very good
In case you forgot, Giannis Antetokounmpo is an out of this world talent. When basketball suddenly halted in mid-March, the Greek Freak was the favorite to win his second consecutive MVP award as well as Defensive Player Of The Year honors. His dominance continued in Orlando after the restart, with the once in a generation talent scoring at least 33 points in four of the six “bubble” games he played. It’s also worth noting he was ejected from the regular season’s penultimate game due to a “headbutt” (or an Oscar-caliber flop by Wizards center Moe Wagner) after playing just 10 minutes and he was also suspended for the finale. As long voters don’t get all sanctimonious, Giannis will earn MVP honors again and he’s also sure to carry the Bucks through the first round.
The Magic aren’t very good
Milwaukee’s first round opponent is the Orlando Magic, who managed a lowly 33-40 regular season record. Beyond the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon (ruled out for game one), and maybe Evan Fournier, there’s really not much to worry about here. Center Mo Bamba—who likely would’ve been responsible for guarding Giannis—contracted coronavirus in June and was just sent home as a result of post-COVID recovery concerns. Bamba will be out for the remainder of the playoffs, but Orlando still has weapons like [looks frantically at roster] former Sixers bust Markelle Fultz, 97-year-old D.J. Augustin, and cruel reminder of semi-recent Bucks past Michael Carter-Williams (also ruled out for game one). So yeah, this series shouldn’t be a big deal. The Magic might steal one game, but our money is on a Milwaukee sweep.
Games are early, but time doesn’t matter in “The Bubble”
With only a few game-caliber courts available in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex, some games in the early rounds will have to be played in the afternoon. For example, game one of Milwaukee’s series with Orlando is at 12:30 p.m. local time today. Game two is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, followed by a noon tip-off on Saturday and another 12:30 p.m. start next Monday. However, it’s worth noting that game times don’t really matter here. There’s no travel involved and there’s really nothing else that would cause day games to be any concern. Once the playoff field shrinks following the first two rounds of play, start times are sure to shift to prime time viewing for all games.
Brook Lopez is heating up
Disney-obsessed big man Brook Lopez seems to feel at home in Orlando. Beyond his imposing defense and his rebounding prowess, Lopez has also upped his already-impressive offensive acumen since the restart. He averaged more than 20 points per contest in “the bubble” and if he stays hot, he’ll take some pressure off Antetokounmpo.
Khris Middleton could make all the difference
Similarly, if Khris Middleton can get dialed in during the playoff, he’ll tons of attention away from Antetokounmpo. Middleton, who lost some weight and added muscle before the restart, averaged 20.9 points per game (the 21st best mark in the NBA) in the 2019-20 season. He’s showed flashes of greatness in Orlando, with a 27 points and 12 boards in a loss to Houston and a 33-point game that helped the Bucks beat the Heat. Sure, the aforementioned Lopez brother, Eric Bledsoe, and any number of players on Milwaukee’s tremendous bench will hopefully contribute too, but the Bucks will rise and fall with the performance of Antetokounmpo and Middleton.
“The Reset” didn’t really matter, but this is everything
Milwaukee’s 3-5 record in “the bubble” doesn’t really matter. The team needed to clinch the top seed, give everyone some minutes in actual games for the first time since March, and keep meaningful players from getting injured. Now that they did that and are entering the playoffs unscathed, the team is now just 16 wins away from greatness. This season has been unlike any other season in NBA history, but that doesn’t matter right now. It’s time for the Milwaukee Bucks to finish what they started.