The Milwaukee Bucks are too good, too deep and too experienced to look this lost and disjointed.
Unless they’re not that good and the Brooklyn Nets have just found themselves at the right time and these blowouts should be expected, but there’s too much evidence to the contrary about the Bucks’ competence.
Now, their confidence looks to be another matter — being thrashed with ease should’ve shaken something in them, considering the game was essentially over in the first 10 minutes or so.
It wasn’t just a wire-to-wire win for the Nets, a spread that rose to as much as 49 before they called off the dogs, and it didn’t just stir up memories of the last two seasons.
The Bucks can’t play with that extra weight; it’s unproductive and a losing proposition, turning into a self-fulfilling prophesy every time a team goes on an 8-0 run.
But they can’t play oblivious to what’s brought them here either, they have to be aware of the stakes, the consequences and their own failures.
That’s why the first two games are so surprising.
The game made you wonder if the Bucks belonged on the same floor as the Nets, if the change in venue will truly affect the outcome in the next five days. The execution is flawless but the strategy seems simple, leading to another lopsided victory.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving dazzle and the Bucks unravel, trying too hard to be something they’re not, forgetting about the identity of toughness they’ve forged this season.
“Call it ego, pride, you name it,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I think every athlete in this league has a little bit of that and when things are not going the way that you want it to go, now you try to take it upon yourself.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo's dominance is missing
Before going any further, it should be stated: Durant (32 points, six assists) is reclaiming his place as the game’s best player and is doing so with a controlled fury. He looks nothing like a man two years removed from a devastating Achilles injury, with the shooting touch still pure and the agility as mesmerizing as ever.
If the Bucks are merely a stop on his revenge tour, if he’s better than before he left the stage, all arguments, punishments and firings can be rescinded in hindsight.
The Bucks shouldn’t be getting waxed like this, whether at home or afar, afternoon or at night, or any other variable.
Antetokounmpo, a very prideful player on the floor and off, should not be getting contained by this version of Blake Griffin. Griffin is diving on the floor for loose balls, playing with desperation and verve while also showing his legs still work.
But Antetokounmpo should be able to dominate him, if he’s in the right spots and not facing a wall of defenders. The box score states Antetokounmpo had a serviceable game, 18 points and 11 rebounds after 34 and 11 in the series opener.
From a competitive standpoint, he should be insulted by Griffin guarding him. The tale of the tape shows the length, quickness and energy are all in his favor. Sometimes you abandon the game plan and assert yourself, feelings be damned.
Especially with uber-efficient Khris Middleton struggling to get started (0-for-6 in the first quarter when the Bucks trailed by 17), more will fall on the reigning two-time MVP.
“You know, there's gonna be times that you have to play a little bit one-on-one,” Antetokounmpo said. “And take the team on your back and get back to the game. But there's got to be times that got to keep the level.”
His effect on the game, though, the plays that send shock waves of energy to his mates, have been missing. The rhythm looks completely off, and while Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer gave credit to the Nets, there hasn’t been much resistance especially in the wake of James Harden’s hamstring injury.
“They're playing with the pass well,” Budenholzer said. “They’re playing with their teammates well. You know, I think at the end of the day, they're both playing at a high level, the scheme and the coverage matters. They're taking advantage of opportunities.”
The Nets are good enough that they don’t need the Bucks handing them games, giving up wide-open threes to the tune of 21 makes. The Bucks were supposed to push the Nets with the experience and make them sweat, cause some panic and win games with poise.
The lead balloons and there’s not a hard foul to be committed. There’s some discomfort but no anger, at least not yet. Perhaps the early foul trouble from P.J. Tucker took away some aggressiveness, but the long faces on the bench seemed to indicate acceptance.
Is Mike Budenholzer's job in jeopardy?
The urgency placed by the front office in acquiring the likes of Tucker and Bobby Portis, not to mention acquiring Jrue Holiday and signing him long-term to big money, hasn’t translated so far in this series.
“The loss sucks. The loss sucks, it’s very frustrating to lose like that,” Holiday said. “We feel we’re better than we’re playing. You can’t really be down. You gotta stay positive. Lock in, look at the film. We gotta be better.”
It’s hard to believe this group is broken. If it is, it will surely cost Budenholzer his job because the next two games will be ugly, at home, to a full crowd. Budenholzer has taken heat for the flameouts the last two seasons, and in the NBA, everyone knows the coach will walk the plank.
His message seemed simple enough: Whether we lost by four or 40, the Nets won two games at home and it’s on us to repeat the task.
They’ve shown the ability to be resilient this season, rebounding from a 31-point loss to Denver by winning eight straight, pounding the Knicks and Spurs in the process. They took a 24-point whipping from the Clippers to start a West Coast swing only to take out frustration on the Lakers and Trail Blazers in two of the next three nights.
Middleton should shoot better. Holiday is a more impactful defender than he’s shown, and Antetokounmpo should get a boost from the home crowd.
That can make the final spread of the series respectable without changing the results, and the Bucks are not here for another postseason that falls short of the Finals — the coming weeks will likely illustrate that.
The Bucks know what’s at stake, that losing isn’t an acceptable outcome.
But the Nets don’t care.
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