ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s pretty ironic how the Bucks brought the playoffs to screeching halt even without a prime-time slot in the first round, that they’re the most famous team in pro sports right now for taking off-court action despite dominating the action all season.
It’s a complex, if not weird, situation for the team with the best record in the NBA and the reigning MVP — and he’ll probably be given another award next month — yet here they are, hoping their basketball buzz will somehow and eventually match the one surrounding their social justice walkout.
In the big picture, the Bucks will be fine with the history they made a few days ago if they fail to make history in October, when the Larry O’Brien trophy is awarded. From Giannis Antetokounmpo to the last man on the bench, they felt a higher calling and a more meaningful purpose than gunning for a title. That’s why they refused to continue their first-round series against the Magic, an action that pushed a domino and caused others to topple, not only on the Disney campus but across all other US sports.
It was an emotional decision by the Bucks that seemed right, just as a more rational decision by NBA players to keep playing also seemed right. First: Why play a game when your head’s in a fog, a distraction caused by a shooting in Kenosha, just down the road from Milwaukee? Second: Why pull the plug on the season and go home and lose your visibility and massive platform and cause financial problems for the league? Even Barack Obama reportedly felt the players needed to return to work.
And now that basketball is back after what Clippers coach Doc Rivers termed “a break we all needed,” there are two purposes for being here: Continue the dialogue on racial injustice and political and police reform by using the setup provided by the league … and chase the championship.
Can the Bucks, guilty of pushing for change, leave Disney with a pair of crowns?
That would make them truly a team to remember, for all the obvious reasons: The season was interrupted by a pandemic, the playoffs are staged in an NBA ecosystem that robbed the Bucks of home-court advantage, and the swirling meteors of social injustice crashed to earth all around them, outside of Orlando.
When baseball and soccer experienced shutdowns and statements were issued by teams from all four major sports, the fingerprints on those events belonged to the Bucks. They started something, for sure. But what will they finish?
The Bucks shut down Friday, when NBA teams returned to practice. They declined all interviews and refused to explain in further detail their actions and what those actions caused across sports and in their home state of Wisconsin.
“As we return to the court today, our team focus will be on our overall performance and well-being,” the team said in a statement.
That’s somewhat fitting, since the Bucks flourished all season in relative silence. They were superior record-wise to LeBron James and the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, the Celtics and the Sixers and the defending champion Raptors, but were hardly the darlings of TV or merchandise sales or social-media hot takes.
Giannis is a 6-foot-10 force on both ends, just named Kia Defensive Player of the Year even as he ranks among the league leaders in scoring and rebounds. All without earning the same sparkle as LeBron and Luka Doncic, and probably not James Harden, either.
The team is based in a small Midwestern town where the appeal is mainly confined to the city limits; beyond that, there are arguably more Bulls fans in Wisconsin, at least when the Bulls are winning.
The Bucks thrive on 3-point shooting created by open looks produced by Giannis clear-outs. If those shots fall, the Bucks are formidable. If they also fall for Giannis, they’re just about unbeatable.
Their defense is elite, not only because of Giannis, but also Brook Lopez. Together they form a brick wall at the rim. And they’re aided by quick guards who can cover the perimeter, starting with Eric Bledsoe.
The rotation has largely been intact for the last few years, with the only noticeable defection being Malcolm Brogdon. That creates great chemistry and an understanding of how to compliment the towering presence of Giannis. Not every superstar is easy for teammates; Giannis is an exception because he doesn’t dominate the ball or play heavy minutes.
All told, the Bucks have those weapons along with great health in their favor. That’s why they’re firmly in the championship mix and perhaps the favorite, definitely the team to beat in the East.
Now we’ll see if their one-game walkout managed to clear their heads enough to allow them to refocus and justify their basketball reason for being in Orlando.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.