While it seems like they are an obvious choice to make their first NBA Finals since 1971, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are not a shoo-in to make it out of the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors seem primed and ready to defend their title, while teams like the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers have the talent and potential to challenge the East’s No. 1 seed.
Even if the Bucks were on a near 70-win pace before the hiatus, Milwaukee has potential speedbumps to address before they punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. Here are a few reasons why you should bet on the Milwaukee Bucks not winning the Eastern Conference Finals and could lose their marquee superstar in the process.
It’s funny how the perception of the East has changed since the departure of LeBron James, but that’s a different story for another day. The East’s top teams have all had success against the Bucks this season, and that prior success along with Milwaukee losing an actual home-court advantage now in the bubble (More on this in a moment). Teams like Toronto and Boston are stacked with guards who can get their own shot and get shots for others, something Milwaukee sorely lacks (looking at you Eric Bledsoe).
Toronto, Philadelphia and Miami benefit from having players on the roster who can actually match up with Giannis due to their size and length on the perimeter. Bam Adebayo and the Heat stand out as a possible second-round matchup that could put Giannis to the test in the East Semis.
Through 65 games before the restart, Milwaukee lost just three times at home. Reason being? Their offensive rating at home (115.5) is comparable to the No. 1 offense (Dallas, 115.8) in the NBA, as their 3-point shooting percentage at home is comparable to a top-5 team.
With the new bubble format, that homecourt advantage is now non-existent. Yes, the league will pipe in local music (can we get Coo Coo Cal?) and show fans on the digital board, but the leveling of the playing field could hamper the Bucks when they have to face the top teams.
The Bucks lost in dramatic fashion Sunday night against a fringe title contender in the Houston Rockets. The Bucks ultimately fell short in the waning moments, as Houston leaned on James Harden and Russell Westbrook to win in one-on-one situations and coach Mike D’Antoni called for a special defense to win the game. “Anybody but Giannis.”
The three biggest questions from last season remain for Milwaukee in the bubble this season. Is Khris Middleton a good enough No. 2 option? Can Eric Bledsoe be counted on in critical moments? Most importantly, can Giannis close big games?
As dominant as Antetokounmpo is, his game has not progressed to be able to make big plays for himself and others when it matters most. While he’s lethal playing in the open court, his inability to produce in the half-court setting is a cause for concern. Will his jumper be good enough in the postseason? What about his free-throw shooting?
Unless the Bucks can continually be front-runners and play with a lead, their inability to thrive in tight situations could be their downfall.
Mike Budenholzer has proven to be a regular-season coach, but the expectations in Milwaukee are now squarely focused at minimum to getting to the NBA Finals. In his time with the Atlanta Hawks, Budenholzer was criticized for not making the proper adjustments in the postseason and ultimately weren’t able to progress beyond the East Finals.
How Budenholzer handles this year’s Bucks under these conditions, will be critical. My guess, is that he will fall short yet again. If he does, The Greek Freak might be taking his talents elsewhere when he becomes a free agent.