Bucks Clinch NBA Playoff Spot Behind Giannis' 44-Point Effort in Win over Nets

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVApril 1, 2022

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) talks with Khris Middleton (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
AP Photo/Aaron Gash

The defending champions are back in the postseason.

The Milwaukee Bucks clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season with a 120-119 overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.

The Bucks also needed a loss by the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch Thursday, and the Cavs fell to the Atlanta Hawks 131-107.

Giannis Antetokounmpo poured in 44 points with 14 rebounds to secure the victory over Brooklyn, his second consecutive 40-point game.

StatMuse @statmuse

Giannis last 2 games<br><br>At Sixers:<br>— 40/14/6<br>— 67 FG%<br>— Game-clinching block<br>— W<br><br>At Nets:<br>— 44/14/6<br>— 67 FG%<br>— Game-tying three to send to OT<br>— Game-winning FTs in OT<br>— W<br><br>Best all around player in the game. <a href="https://t.co/aup6CJGI9t">pic.twitter.com/aup6CJGI9t</a>

While the playoffs were never really a question for a Milwaukee squad that has bigger goals, it deserves plenty of credit for navigating some of the ups and downs of the season. Brook Lopez suffered a back injury in the season opener, Pat Connaughton suffered a fractured finger, and the depth of the role players has been a significant concern.

At the All-Star break, ESPN noted the Bucks played 24 different starting lineups through the first 60 games alone.

Yet the presence of the Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton means they are legitimate contenders no matter who is surrounding them on the floor.

Antetokounmpo is arguably the best player in the game ,as he is unstoppable attacking the basket, can control the glass, is an elite-level defender at times and can facilitate if needed. There is a reason he is a two-time MVP, and he will be the focal point throughout the playoffs.

Middleton is the secondary scorer who can stretch the floor and take advantage of openings when opponents double Antetokounmpo, while Holiday is the calming presence who controls the tempo of the game but can also score himself or distribute while providing solid perimeter defense.

Thanks in large part to the presence of those three players—and the fact the Bucks just broke through for their first championship since 1970-71—it is once again title-or-bust expectations for the team.

The path may be more difficult this time around, too, considering Kyrie Irving missed the last three games of the second round for the Nets last season and the Atlanta Hawks weren't exactly a juggernaut in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Milwaukee will also get every team's best shot as the defending champion facing a loaded Eastern Conference field that includes presumed contenders in the Philadelphia 76ers, Nets, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.

Every round could be difficult, but this team already proved it can navigate the pressure-packed moments on this stage with last season's championship run.

Highlights of Antetokounmpo's 2021 NBA Finals performance will play when he's eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Now he has the chance to add another ring to his resume as the Bucks attempt to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Golden State Warriors did so in 2017 and 2018.