I don’t know why I continue to find myself writing about the Milwaukee Bucks. I’ve never seen them play basketball live, don’t watch them any more regularly than I do any other NBA team and am not a fan of them in any significant way, shape or form. I suppose they’ve become a regular occurrence on your SportsChump feed because, having bested the Brooklyn Nets and now on the doorstep of disposing the Atlanta Hawks, they’re on the verge of becoming NBA champions.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a fine basketball team, one I’ve suggested quite wrongly in the past that didn’t have enough to win a title. They’re six wins away from proving me wrong.
Recognizing just how incorrect I was, I later ate my words. The Bucks still may not win it all but it’s clear they have the talent to do so.
Oddly enough, however, they are still an enigma to watch primarily because their best player, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, is not the guy you want taking the shot in the final minutes of a game. In fact, you probably don’t want the ball in his hands at all.
I went back and looked at every single MVP in NBA history and struggled to find one who you didn’t want taking the final shot. In Golden State, Klay Thompson could shoot lights out but Steph Curry was still the alpha. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James shifted roles in Miami but you were okay with either launching one at the buzzer. Pippen was essential to Jordan’s six championships but you still wanted Jordan with the ball at crunch time. In fact, name an NBA MVP who you don’t want taking the final shot and I bet you only come up with one.
Don’t get me wrong. Giannis is an athlete the likes the game has never seen. He’s a seven-foot gazelle who is near impossible to stop in the open court. He’s a nightmare to cover… unless, of course, you can keep him away from the basket, which is easier said than done. At least then you can force him into a shot outside his range.
For the longest time, head coach Mike Budenholzer seemed to struggle with this logic but in this Hawks series, he has adjusted, realizing there is another superstar he can trust. That man’s name is Khris Middleton. The Batman-Robin analogy has been bludgeoned to death by every joker of a sportswriter and isn’t even entirely accurate in this instance for it assumes one player wears a larger cape. In Milwaukee, this is not the case, unless you’re bold enough to consider Giannis the Robin.
Basketball is a team sport. No one player makes a championship, most certainly not Giannis. But, as we witnessed in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals, with Khris Middleton scoring 20 in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Hawks by himself, the Bucks have finally come to terms with the fact that they don’t need, or even want, their MVP taking the final shot.
Giannis still can’t hit a free throw (he’s shooting 56% for these playoffs), a major drawback for someone who gets to the line as much as he does. His mid-range game is iffy at best. While aspects of his game remain a detriment, Milwaukee has taken great strides to develop an identity that doesn’t solely revolve around the Freak. It might finally win them a championship.
I just don’t know that I’ve ever seen an MVP who I don’t want taking the final shot which is why a) so many people still doubt this team and b) why the uber-talented, and still young (26), Giannis remains an anomaly. He’s not get-him-out-of-the-game bad like Ben Simmons who, similarly, can’t hit a jump shot or free throw. But Philadelphia doesn’t have a knock-down shooter like Middleton to bail Simmons out. That’s a big reason they’re no longer playing basketball.
I heard an interesting statistic that, in retrospect, shouldn’t surprise us at all. When Khris Middleton shoots over 40% from the floor this post-season, the Milwaukee Bucks are unbeatable. When he shoots under that mark, the Bucks have a losing record. If Nate McMillan isn’t designing plays to cool off Middleton, then he needs to fire his research department. Continually forcing Giannis to take ill-advised shots until he proves he can beat you is Milwaukee’s Achilles’ Heel. The problem for opposing defenses is getting him to do that.
Milwaukee may very well win an NBA title. Giannis might even win Finals MVP. After all he’s leading the Bucks in points, rebounds and player efficiency rating. But I still sit here, scratching my bald head and marveling at the fact that we’ve never seen this before.
Memo to the rest of the NBA: I’d beat the Bucks now while you still have the chance because if a determined Giannis develops a mid-range jump shot, and I wouldn’t put it past him to work on that all summer, that could be all she wrote for several years to come.
Until then, I highly suggest beating them while you can.