Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are designed for this.
Obviously, no organization constructs a roster and installs a system made to thrive in a 22-team, neutral-site bubble during a pandemic. That's not a scenario anyone plans for. But Milwaukee's confidence in its own identity delivered a 119-112 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday at HP Field House.
Antetokounmpo's overwhelming talent also had a hand in the result.
The prohibitive favorite to repeat as MVP finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in 32 minutes, hitting 14 of his 20 shots from the field. He ran over the Celtics early, as he and the Bucks adhered to the blueprint that has produced the league's highest win total two years running: Defend the rim, secure the ball, sprint the other way and trust that if the rock finds Giannis on the move, points are practically assured.
Milwaukee followed that familiar formula to a 17-2 first-quarter lead, an advantage that was even more dominant than it appeared, as the Celtics' two points came via a Bucks "own goal".
The game's opening minutes saw Brook Lopez repeatedly swallow up Jayson Tatum's driving layup attempts, allowing Antetokounmpo to thunder up and down the floor, mostly unimpeded. The Celtics All-Star appeared out of rhythm (can we just say shook?) all night, due in no small part to Lopez's early denials.
Milwaukee hit the ground at full speed. Boston, in what may become a metaphor for the rest of the East's attempts to keep up, found itself eating dust.
Aided by an uncharacteristic 17 first-half Milwaukee fouls—the Bucks averaged 19.2 per game prior to the shutdown—and some inspiring bench play from Grade-A chaos agent Marcus Smart, Boston impressively cut the Bucks' lead to six by halftime and kept things close throughout the third and fourth quarters. Smart led the Celtics with 23 points, dramatically outplaying Tatum and his 2-of-18 effort.
Boston is among the league's best prepared and most tactically sound teams, and it adjusted well. Head coach Brad Stevens tired of Daniel Theis passing up the threes Lopez kept daring him to shoot and tinkered with an centerless lineup that had an easier time scoring against a packed-in defense. Stevens also had Boston in a zone, albeit briefly, in the second half.
More broadly, the Celtics made a game of it by sticking to the widely read book on how to slow down the Milwaukee juggernaut. After allowing that rout of a start, the C's limited the Bucks' transition chances and made sure to station multiple large humans between Antetokounmpo and the basket. Milwaukee finished with 16 fast-break points and 48 points in the paint, a hair below its season averages in both categories.
In the end, Milwaukee didn't so much counter Boston's adjustments as redouble its own efforts to dictate the terms of the game. That self-assuredness is practically a superpower; it immunizes the Bucks against panic when the opponent seems to be winning the strategic battle. They know that rather than changing plans, they need only commit more fully to the ones that have delivered them so many wins.
So the Bucks closed the game out with the same deflating (for Boston) stops and unyielding attacks on the rim with which they began it.
Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took four straight games from Milwaukee in last year's playoffs, eliminating Antetokounmpo and branding the Bucks with the stigma of being dominant yet solvable. It has to be encouraging, then, for the Bucks to restart the season with a win that saw them simply reject a similar Boston "solution."
This Celtics squad is a cut below those champion Raptors, but the Bucks nonetheless proved that no matter how effectively opponents muck up the middle of a game, they can trust in their principles to get them over the top in the end.
It'll take a ring to kill the solvable narrative for good, and to avoid the same fate they suffered against the Raptors last year, the Bucks need to prove that while the same system still works, some of the components can work better. Khris Middleton was a no-show in two pivotal playoff games against Toronto, and Eric Bledsoe, who didn't play against Boston, has repeatedly disappeared in the postseason.
Middleton didn't play well throughout Friday's win, but he was integral in the Bucks' early surge and closing burst. Milwaukee kept its devastating Antetokounmpo-Middleton pick-and-roll combo under wraps until it was absolutely necessary, at which point it all but sealed the win.
For those still concerned about the Bucks being a little too predictable, the late unveiling of that unstoppable set suggests a system team can still hide a trick or two up its sleeve.
We're early enough in the Orlando experiment to talk ourselves into a lot of teams as legitimate title threats. The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are talent-laden and led by a pair of superstar wings who've already piloted multiple teams to championships. The Raptors match up with everyone, are exceptionally well-coached and have improved their winning percentage without Leonard. Even Boston deserves some dark-horse love.
It's certainly not a hot take to say the Bucks are very good or even that they deserve to be title favorites. But it does feel novel to say that Milwaukee's relatively rigid adherence to a system approach, viewed by many as a weakness, might actually be a strength.
Especially in Orlando.
Every team is coping with unprecedented circumstances in the bubble. The pandemic, the long layoff, the surreality of the whole quarantine experience. This restart is defined by a departure from comfort and simplicity. It's all one big adjustment.
The players are also focused on social justice.
On the floor, Giannis and the Bucks have the advantage of knowing (and trusting) exactly who they are. They proved against Boston that their identity is secure. In a time of so much uncertainty, the Bucks' well-earned self-assurance will make a difference.