In the fourth quarter, the Milwaukee Bucks rallied. Game 2 of their first-round seriesWhen a driving lane was opened for forward Khris Midton, it was against the Chicago Bulls.
Middleton made a run for the basket before Bulls center Nikola Vucevic got in front. Middleton tried to spin away but his left knee buckled when he fell on the court. Middleton tried to ignore it, but the team decided that he was out of the game.
The next day, Middleton was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He missed the first round. He is expected to miss all of the second against the Boston Celtics. The series is tied at 1-1 as he enters Saturday's Game 3.3:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
The Bucks face one of their biggest challenges in defending their title: Middleton's absence.
Over the last two seasons, the Bucks have been 6-1 in the playoffs when one of their Big Three — Giannis Antitookounmpo (Middleton) or Jrue Holiday — has been out. They are expected to play shorthanded in this playoff series against the Celtics for the first time.
The Bucks still have one goal: To bring home a second consecutive Larry O’Brien Trophy to Milwaukee.
“We did this last year as part of a group, when Giannis was down.” [in the conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks]Middleton spoke out before a team exercise a few days later after the injury. “Everybody was there and played a significant part. “I expect nothing less.”
It's likely that the Bucks will see their season end earlier if they can't replace Middleton. This is just one key to raising another banner. The Bucks will be successful if they focus on three key areas in addition to Middleton's absence.
Giannis changes again
Antetokounmpo is an example of this dominance, which led to him winning consecutive MVP awards in back to back road victories against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as the Brooklyn Nets to end the regular season.
Antetokounmpo won the Philadelphia Sixers' Cup. 40 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 blocksIncluding the game-saving rejection of a Joel Embiid layup that could have sent it to overtime. Antetokounmpo was back in Brooklyn the next night with 44 points, 14 boards, and 6 assists. To force overtime, he hit a 3-pointer 18 seconds before the end of regulation. Then he drained two free shots with three seconds remaining in overtime to secure the win. one-point win against the Nets.
“If he is able to carry your like that,” an Eastern Conference scout said to ESPN.
Antetokounmpo tallied a career-high 29.9 point average this season. This was his fourth consecutive year of at least 25 point, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. This is the most such seasons ever recorded by any player within NBA history. Second Spectrum reports that he posted the highest field-goal percentage (61%) among these players.
Grayson Allen, Bucks' guard, stated that he has a go mode in which he's able carry a large portion of the offensive load over long periods. He's the one who creates opportunities for other players, even if he doesn't score. It's amazing that he can keep this up for long games and still get blocks and be active at the defensive end.
The reigning Finals MVP was even more dangerous after his first championship win. He made improvements to his game and became more dangerous. Antetokounmpo attempted a record 11.4 free throws per match, making 72% of his free throws in the regular season. This is his highest percentage since 2018-19. He was able to shoot 77% from the line in three of the last round's games, but has fallen a bit against Boston. He made 55% through two games.
Antetokounmpo also scored 36.1% on jumpers. It was the highest single season rate Antetokounmpo has ever achieved, according to Second Spectrum. He's becoming more comfortable at the midrange and takes 16.5% of all his shots there, up from 13% last year and 9.4% for 2019-20.
The star power forward is also able to defeat double-teams and give his teammates wide-open shots from 3. Antetokounmpo assisted on 30 3-pointers in this postseason. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies guard, has 32. 22 of those 3s were uncontested, which is the most by any player. Antetokounmpo had 12 assists in Game 1 against the Celtics and posted his second triple-double postseason.
You think you're watching a Giannis, who is scraping the ceiling and maximizing the potential of what a man can do. Brook Lopez from Bucks Center said, “Then he comes back next Year and he just do more.”
“I have learned to let go of the thought that he does everything and adds something to everything. It's quite endless. It's great and it all boils down to the work ethic.
Reclaiming a defensive identity
The Bucks' defense was average during the regular season. They were 14th in defensive rating. This is usually a sign of what will happen in the playoffs. Since 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, no other team has won the title with a lower defensive efficiency rating. This team is widely considered to be the greatest “switch-flipping team” in NBA history. They won the title by turning up the intensity in postseason and led all teams in defensive efficiency, leading the way to a 15-1 record and a second consecutive title.
The Bucks are already down in every series, and they won't be unbeaten until at least the Finals. They have shown an ability to play defense, just like the 2001 Lakers team.
Antetokounmpo declared, “We have to play defense to win,” following Milwaukee's victory against Atlanta in Game 5. “We don’t know how many points Khris will score, but we need to work as hard as we can.
“We may score 90 points but we could defend them and they might score 80.”
The Bucks were ranked no lower than ninth defensively in their three first seasons under Mike Budenholzer. They were the most defense-oriented team in the playoffs last season and won the championship.
In the first round, Bucks were certainly on point. The Bucks smothered Bulls to 94.4 points per 100 possessions, the highest defensive efficiency in the playoffs. They also neutralized Bulls star DeMar DeRozan who shot 34% from field in the first round. The trend continued in Round 2. The Bucks held Boston to 89 points with 33.3% shooting in Game 1. Boston then caught fire in Game 2. The Bucks' total of 96.8 postseason points allowed per 100 possessions is 6 more points than the Miami Heat (103.0). This would be the highest defensive rating ever for a playoff team in over a decade.
Budenholzer declared, “We've been very strong defensively for three year,” as the playoffs started. There are many good individual defenders. They just need to have the God-given talent, ability, and focus. It's all about putting it all together.
Brook Lopez's return
An “Welcome Home” banner featuring Tigger, Winnie the Pooh, was displayed in the Bucks' training area on March 14.
Lopez started the first game before he had to miss the next five months due to surgery to remove a bulging disc in his lower back. His favorite Disney character was the inspiration for his personal trainer staff who helped him through rehab.
Lopez stated that he was happy to get back to hooping with his buddies a few days later. I missed that camaraderie, both on the bench and on the floor. It's great.
Lopez, even though he was only able 13 games in the season, returned to Milwaukee as the same rim protector and last line of defense.
Lopez returned on March 14 and held his opponents to a 39.5% shooting percentage at the rim. This is the lowest percentage of field goals among players who have defended at least 40 shots at rim per Second Spectrum. The Bulls shot 37% on the field during round 1. In each of his two first round games against Boston, he blocked three shots.
Holiday stated that it was “just crazy” to him that people ignore him. “Even last season, people overlooked Brook. Where in Game?” He had about 30 games in the Atlanta series. [with Antetokounmpo sidelined]. He was a slap on everyone. Brook is gone, but people did see this year what he meant to our team, particularly on the defensive side.
Wesley Matthews felt a strong connection to the Bucks' success, even though he was watching the NBA Finals from his couch.
Matthews played on the roster for the Bucks in 2019-20, but he was also born in Wisconsin and attended Marquette college. Matthews was eager to return to the team after 23 games.
He signed with Milwaukee on Dec. 3 and was taken off the bench the day after.
Matthews, whose grandmother Madeline Gaines died earlier in the season and before the playoffs started, stated that “I wish my grandfather was here to witness it.” “That was one thing that really mattered to me. It was why I came back, and why I worked so hard to get back in this league, that she could see me again and to compete for a championship.
The Bucks spent the offseason searching for a replacement to P.J. Tucker was on the playoff roster last year, but the Bucks may have found their solution in a player who was at home the first two months.
Matthews is not the only one being considered to fill in for Middleton. Bobby Portis, who was able to shoot from 3 against Chicago (58.3%), was moved into the starting line-up. Holiday and Matthews hounded the Bulls defensively. Matthews was the most frequent primary defender on the team against DeRozan, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information, holding him to just 36% shooting. Holiday was Holiday's primary defender, and the Bulls were unable to stop him shooting 29%.
Lopez stated that Khris is clearly a major part of what we do. However, we also have many talented men on our team. “We're going see a lot more different guys, we think, stepping up at different nights.”