The second-seeded Toronto Raptors know that a failed run in the Eastern Conference playoffs could lead to the dismantling of their team, forward Kawhi Leonard and center Marc Gasol among their free agents. The No. 3-seeded team, the Philadelphia 76ers, has major decisions to make about free-agent forwards Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. And the Boston Celtics, the fourth seed, could see their roster overhauled, either with Kyrie Irving leaving or with a deal for Anthony Davis materializing.
Chaos and uncertainty could be in the future of all of those teams if things don’t go right over the next two months. But the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks? They know their path.
The owners of the NBA’s best overall record, the Bucks have been the steadiest team this season. The Bucks had exactly one losing streak (they dropped two in a row in early March). It took a combination of the Bucks resting three starters and the Oklahoma City Thunder needing a win in the regular-season finale for one team to beat Milwaukee twice.
It’s the result of the Bucks knowing their identity and being completely at ease with it.
“It's just knowing who we are, knowing what we're about, and fighting every night. Proving that we're the best even if we weren't selected as the best at the beginning,” Bucks All-Star wing Khris Middleton told The Times. “That's just our mentality — go out and prove why we're here and why we think we're the best. We play the right way. We just play with a chip. We know a lot of teams passed up on us, a lot of teams didn't believe in our talent. We play with that.”
From All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could win the most valuable player award despite his path to the NBA beginning in the third division of the Greek league, to Middleton, the first G League player to make an All-Star team, the Bucks aren’t strangers to being underdogs.
At the start of the season, some Las Vegas bookmakers had Milwaukee at 100-1 to win an NBA title. Now, entering the playoffs, they’re the favorites in the East.
“We know no one thought we were going to be this good,” reserve guard Pat Connaughton said. “And we know people are going to doubt us coming into the playoffs. We know we're in a small market. We know there are a lot of things against us. So, we're fighting all of that together.”
And, it’s been agenda-free.
“We don't care about who gets the shine. When you've got it going that night, you've got it going that night,” guard Eric Bledsoe told The Times. “Everybody in here had to work to get to this point. Even Giannis. He had to work from what he was. He didn't come in as the Giannis Antetokounmpo that he is now. We've been humbled since the start of it. That all carries over.”
The path to the NBA Finals could be incredibly difficult. All of the top four seeds in the East are credible contenders and, barring major upsets, whoever gets there will have to defeat two of them.
The Bucks think they have the recipe.
In coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season, the Bucks have completely reset their offensive priorities, putting four long-range threats around Antetokounmpo, while the team has employed the NBA’s best defense.
Antetokounmpo has a legitimate chance to be the next face of the NBA, a charismatic star who is a slam-dunk machine that still hasn’t come close to realizing his full potential.
He’s under contract for two more seasons and is eligible for supermax extension after next year. Bledsoe re-signed earlier this season while Middleton has thrived in Milwaukee and has expressed interest in staying.
They’re in position to win now. They’re in position to keep winning. And it’s all because they know who they are.