Early Adversity a Blessing in Disguise for Bucks


Father time is undefeated.

Not just for basketball players, but everyone involved in the most excellent game.

Thus, when the Bucks fought in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals’ deciding game, one could understand when the typically fantastic Marv Albert slipped a bit. “Pascal Siakam drives and scores!” The scribe hollered. “Oh, wait;” in the real world, a timely foul prevented the winning bucket.

It turns out Marv wasn’t the last to prematurely count the Bucks out of Finals contention, as too many dismiss the Bucks’ 2021 chances. However, when fans examine the Deer’s careful roster and technique construction since the semifinal loss, they will understand how the Bucks learned from the setback. With the Raptors rediscovering dominance, the Bucks must regain competitiveness to return to nearly-missed glory.

Snaring the Freak

Last season’s Raptors had a better record without Kawhi Leonard. But as any annoying Warriors fan can tell you (with apologies to the wonderful folks at Dubs Lead), the playoffs matter most. Without the Claw, Toronto didn’t have the workforce to slay a merely fair Boston team. True, the Bucks struggled in Orlando too. However, Jon Horst had an option the Raptors never will.

Despite consistent, pesty rumors about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s impending trade, Horst signed a friendly Giannis to a $228.2 million supermax extension (hopefully, he can give fans a break on soda prices in our triumphant Forum return.)  All fine and well, a skeptic may say. But don’t the Raptors have the ring Zeus’s servant lacks? Look more closely, though.

Struggles and Surges

Any “overnight” success is, instead, a culmination of many years of work. Dwane Casey’s reptiles repeatedly fell to LeBron and the Cavs before an excellent Nick Nurse cleaned up his men’s details.

Similarly, the Bucks fell numerous times before improving. When Giannis slunk off the court after a devastating game-seven loss to Boston, some supporters grew discouraged. And rightfully so, it seemed, as the All-Star wasn’t near his potential. Thankfully, Mike Budenholzer adapted the Bucks to the post-Steve Kerr three-point palooza. Milwaukee got shooters to support Giannis, and the Freak gained confidence. Giannis, no longer sheltered by buddy-buddy coach Jason Kidd, received the constructive criticism and guidance needed to unlock his hidden drive.

The fight to June, however, continues.

Milwaukee now knows it doesn’t need to win 80% of its regular-season games to succeed. The numerous blowout triumphs of 2019 and 2020 didn’t help the franchise, as its players couldn’t handle playoff intensity. With increased challenges this year comes additional learning opportunities. The Deer, true, will have a home-court advantage with their city allowing fans. As seen in 2019, however, using leadup games as a learning experience may be more critical.

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Not The End Of The World

On February 16th, Giannis’s teammates couldn’t help enough to get the W. The Freak, seldom one to get too upset about a loss, offering a calming perspective postgame.

“We’re not going home; it’s not the playoffs,” he reasoned. “It’s not the end of the world right now.”

Have Wisconsinites so soon forgotten Aaron Rodgers’ R-E-L-A-X message preceding two MVPs? True, the next loss caused understandable concern. Toronto fought more aggressively, and the Bucks couldn’t charge back. What’s the missing ingredient?

While expressing his explanation isn’t an excuse, Giannis points out that Jrue Holiday‘s absence inhibits the team. It would be wrong to Polyanna, or make overly optimistic, recent struggles. Do consider, though, how important it is for the team to be functioning as a whole. In the 2021 home-and-home series, the Raptors played magnificently as a unit. Giannis stated, “it’s a team game, a group game.” Self-interest, as expressed so well by modern economists, works for everybody if coaches make incentive structures correct.

Giannis is a soft-spoken leader, but in Coach Budenholzer’s third year, the team has developed a family’s identity. If Bud can encourage Khris Middleton to be assertive (which isn’t selfish, as it helps everyone) while continuing to enable Giannis to facilitate and dominate, the recent slide can be instructive, not merely disappointing.

Turning Point?

Giannis’s 29-point, 19-rebound performance against Oklahoma City propelled his team to a perhaps season-saving triumph.

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However, the turning point may have already happened. The 2019 Raptors didn’t amaze anyone in losing to Orlando and needing four bounces to beat Philadelphia. When the Bucks slipped in game three, however, Nurse’s reptiles seized the opportunity. While the “fire Bud” symphony gains more supporters, Milwaukee fans should count blessings instead. While some owners ban fans for life for criticism, Giannis loves his community, and Milwaukee built a culture of respect in a conference with too many lost franchises.

It would be wrong to dismiss the recent five-game slide as meaningless. Still, the team must maintain focus in a conference continually struggling to bruise Giannis. Toronto continues perfecting idealized team basketball, but a (believe it or not) warmer city can claim the title with the right intensity. If Giannis and Jrue follow Bud’s passion for basketball, Marv may have a more straightforward call in the next East Finals.

“Giannis for the SLAM! Bucks lead by 21!” There’s a scenario that not even the worst time miser can foil.

Follow us on Twitter @BucksLead for the latest Bucks news and insight. 

About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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