Momentum Lost?

When the NBA season paused, Giannis was on his way to another MVP award and the Bucks were dominant. Can they pick up where they left off?
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2020

Giannis Antetokounmpo settles into a seat in the Milwaukee Bucks' practice facility and stares into a monitor hooked into a Microsoft Teams feed. He's donning a Bucks practice shirt, cut off at the shoulders. He rubs his bowling ball-sized biceps. His lips curl into a smile as he speaks.

This is Antetokounmpo's first press conference since mid-March, his first time speaking with reporters since the COVID-19 pandemic placed the NBA season on pause.

To that point, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks had bulldozed the league. Entering the shutdown, they boasted the NBA's best defense, point differential (plus-10.7) and record (53-12). Antetokounmpo seemed destined to capture a second consecutive MVP award. And that this was all coming with him just two years from unrestricted free agency—and in the run-up to an offseason in which the Bucks could (and will) offer him a five-year supermax contract extension—only made the team's dominance feel more consequential. Even if you're not someone who believes a title is the Bucks' only chance at securing Antetokounmpo, it's hard to see how winning one wouldn't at least help their cause.

Everything seemed to be breaking Milwaukee's way. And then the NBA disappeared.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

During the shutdown, Antetokounmpo wasn't entirely out of the public eye, but the few glimpses he did offer into his life had little to do with basketball or the Bucks. Instead they mirrored what was taking place in the outside world. There he was in March, passing the now-endless hours at home by teaching himself the guitar; there he was in June, donning an I CAN'T BREATHE T-shirt and holding a megaphone up to his mask.

But the NBA is now on its way back, or at least it wants to be, and so here he is, at this press conference in early July, taking questions about how the sport fits into this new reality. He seems happy, the way any of us do when offered a reminder of life before the pandemic. It's not normalcy, but in 2020, it's about as close as you'll find.

Antetokounmpo laughs. He offers long, thought-out answers. He says he used his time off to get stronger. He says he thinks the team's chemistry will help it thrive in the bubble. He sounds enthusiastic. He projects confidence.

But there's also this:

"You're in a tough position, because obviously we've worked—I've worked personally seven years, and the team has worked all season long—to be in the position to go out there and win a championship," he says. "And then just, that being taken away from you. That's kind of hard."

A few minutes later, he comes to talking about the team's lost home-court advantage, and it hits him again:

"It kind of...it sucks."

They were so close last year. It's easy to forget that now, given how things ended.

They'd spent the season thumping opponents. New head coach Mike Budenholzer's decision to install a five-out scheme had transformed Antetokounmpo into an uncontainable force. The foundation of the attack was simple: Give the ball to Antetokounmpo at the top of the key, spread the floor with shooting and let him go one-on-one. If no help came, he'd muscle his way to the rim. If help was sent, the ball would be swung to the open man. Opponents had no answers.

The Bucks reeled off an NBA-best 60 wins during the regular season. They swept the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs' first round. They bludgeoned the Boston Celtics in the second. They took the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals from the Toronto Raptors.

But before Game 3, tired of watching Antetokounmpo pummel his team, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse tweaked his defense. Recognizing that allowing Antetokounmpo to comfortably operate, and then dictate, was foolish, he instructed his players to shade off Antetokounmpo's teammates and pack the paint. He wanted Antetokounmpo to see at least one help defender stationed between him and the hoop every time he held the ball, to feel their defense at every turn, to be rushed and swarmed.

The bet was twofold: One was that the rest of the Bucks, despite the team's sweet shooting all season, weren't capable of carrying the load. The other was that Antetokounmpo didn't possess the passing skills to punish this sort of scheme.

"They were really the first team to play him like that and to that extreme," Bucks assistant coach Ben Sullivan says. "They had two to three guys, helping only on him, making sure he couldn't get where he wanted to go."

The tactic worked. The Raptors hung on for a double-overtime Game 3 win and then took the next three games too. Crowds, it turned out, could fluster Antetokounmpo. The Bucks, it turned out, didn't have much of a response. Not only did Antetokounmpo spend the rest of the series fruitlessly launching himself into a wall of Raptors defenders—he averaged 20.5 points in Games 3 through 6 and finished just 43.5 percent of his shots, a nearly 15 percent plunge from his regular-season mark—but the players the Raptors shaded off of failed to convert their open looks. The team's offense, which scored an explosive 113.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, sputtered, racking up just 99.4 points per 100 possessions in the 159 minutes Antetokounmpo played.

"Guys were expecting to win that series," Bucks guard Sterling Brown says.

After the season, Antetokounmpo spent time reviewing the film. "I don't want to get to that same point again and have that same defense work," he told Sullivan over the summer. He and Budenholzer had conversations about ways both men could adjust.

Many teams would have overhauled their offensive system. Or at least spent the offseason, and then regular season, exploring new options.

The Bucks took a different approach.

Budenholzer loves the phrase "corporate knowledge." He picked it up in San Antonio, where he spent nearly two decades as an assistant to Gregg Popovich. The idea is that, as a team, you pinpoint your strengths, and then the way you want to play, and you stick with it, never overreacting to results—and through that continuity you gain comfort and skills within the system and, through that, an advantage.

After last season's loss, the Bucks faced a choice. Budenholzer and his staff reviewed film from the Raptors series. They spotted some holes here and there, but their overarching reaction was that in many ways the defeat was a result of bad luck, of Bucks shooters missing too many clean looks. They also reminded themselves that, prior to the previous season, this Bucks team had never made it past the playoffs' first round. And anyway, the list of NBA champions was littered with teams that had initially failed.

In other words: There was no need for an overhaul. Another year together meant more corporate knowledge. Everyone in the organization would be better at what they did. There was no shortcut to winning a title, but the power of corporate knowledge could help close the gap.

Early in the season, this belief looked misguided. In their first nine games, the Bucks regressed from their 2018-19 marks in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and winning percentage—not exactly encouraging for a team with championship aspirations. They had elected not to re-sign starting guard Malcolm Brogdon and missed his shooting and off-the-dribble punch. "We had some new players and roles," Brown says. "It took some time for everything to click."

But by the middle of the season, everything, and everyone, had settled into place. Wesley Matthews smothered opponents. George Hill caught fire from deep (48 percent). Pat Connaughton, in his second season with Milwaukee after starting his career in Portland, emerged as a starting-caliber wing. Khris Middleton became a mid-range assassin—hitting 49.9 percent on all field goals in addition to his 41.8 of threes and 90.8 of free throws, a shooting season that nearly puts him in the rarified 50-40-90 club with all-time greats like Steve Nash and Larry Bird.

Gary Dineen / Getty Images

Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, bolstered and diversified his game. He upped his scoring output and assist rate. He began taking—and even occasionally hitting—jump shots. He polished his post moves. His passing numbers are the same, but he's made a point of being more precise against double-teams.

"Every year he just learns the game even more," Middleton says.

Meanwhile, the foundation of it all remained untouched. "They play basically the same way they did last season," a rival scout says. On offense, the Bucks still rely on isolations, launch a ton of threes and mostly eschew pick-and-rolls. On defense, they still concede three-pointers and rely on Brook Lopez's interior mastery to wall off the paint. And they do it all brilliantly.

They hadn't lost two games in a row all season until Antetokounmpo missed a pair in early March with a minor knee injury, and even then they were well on their way to earning home-court advantage for the entire postseason, a boon for a team that had gone 28-3 while playing in front of its home crowd.

Then the pandemic arrived, bringing the season—and all the momentum the Bucks had accrued—to a sudden halt.

"I think we're as much as possible going to pick things up from where we left off," Budenholzer says, "but at the same time know that we haven't played basketball for two-and-a-half, three months."

He adds, "We know we've got a long ways to go and a lot of work ahead of us."

There are so, so many questions left to answer. Will Budenholzer's trust in the Bucks system be proved right? Will Antetokounmpo have a response for when he encounters a Raptors-like wall? Will the Bucks secondary scorers—most notably Eric Bledsoe—come through? How will Middleton adapt to all the coverages playoff defenses throw at a team's No. 2 option? Will any of this impact Antetokounmpo's free-agency decision?

Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

Will the games even take place?

Four days after Antetokounmpo's early July press conference, a positive COVID-19 test within the organization would force the Bucks to shut down their facility. They would cease all training, not resuming until July 12, in the bubble.

If things go as planned from here, and the league does resume, the Bucks will do so as the clear favorites to come out of the East—and, to many, the league's best title bet. But such things matter little to Antetokounmpo, who knows he's about to embark on a journey unlike any the NBA has ever seen. To be the star of a championship-or-bust team is hard enough. Add in the unpredictable format and the loneliness that comes with being sequestered from family and friends and the ticking clock of free agency looming over it all, and you have a mixture that could break even the strongest of groups.

"I feel like at the end of the day," Antetokounmpo says, "this is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win."


Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.

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