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Column: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are NBA title favorites. Here’s the challenge they face

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to pass out of the defense of Clippers guard Jerome Robinson and center Ivica Zubac.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to pass out of the defense of Clippers guard Jerome Robinson and center Ivica Zubac.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

No place in the NBA epitomizes the changes from last summer more than Staples Center. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are Clippers. LeBron James has Anthony Davis now.

Both teams are on any list of early season championship contenders.

You can see change in other ways too. Beginning last Wednesday, the final four teams standing in last year’s postseason have either visited or will visit Staples Center in the course of a week. And only the Milwaukee Bucks have a clear path back to the conference finals.

Portland and Golden State have been decimated by injuries and probably won’t see the Western Conference finals anytime soon. Toronto could make a push after a great start — Pascal Siakam has been playing terrifically — but the man who led the Raptors to their first title is now leading the Clippers.

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So that leaves the Bucks, who beat the Leonard-less Clippers on Wednesday, as the last vestige of last season — a constant threat in a league in which most teams at the top underwent seismic changes.

Milwaukee didn’t need to make any big shifts this summer. They lost Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana (where he’s having a breakout season) and Nikola Mirotic to Europe, but veterans like Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver and Robin Lopez are all solid replacements. Most importantly, the NBA’s reigning most valuable player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is still in a Bucks uniform and getting better.

They were beating Toronto 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals less than six months ago before losing four in a row.

“How? How did we lose that lead?” Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe asked himself all summer. “…They just outplayed us. They played harder than us, went after the ball harder than us, executing plays that we didn’t execute. We, at the end of the day, just got our ass kicked.

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“…That sticks around. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”

Frank Vogel has done what many NBA coaches have struggled to do in guiding the Lakers to a fast start amid sky-high expectations.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer brought up the failures in the conference finals in the first film session on the first day of training camp, Bledsoe said. Lessons learned from that series have helped define Milwaukee’s push this season, with the Bucks off to a 6-3 start.

“It’s mental discipline with us,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “I think we have talent. I think we have depth. I think we have guys that are ready to produce. ... Our losses have come from lapses on defense. … To a degree, we were up 2-0 last year, and mentally, we lapsed a little bit last year. That’s what our identity has to be.”

The Bucks, in some ways, want to be different. Budenholzer said there were several little things that went wrong in those last four losses of the season. Milwaukee didn’t adjust quickly enough. As the games got tighter, the Bucks got looser with the ball and more careless with how they executed.

But they’re also largely the same. They are among the best shooting teams in the league with their 136 three-pointers ranking No. 1. “Let it fly” was the Bucks’ mantra a season ago, and they’re showing no signs of grounding anyone.

And then there’s Antetokounmpo, who is averaging an absurd 29.1 points, 14.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists. It’s hard to tell if last season’s experience has changed him or is driving him.

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Dan Woike asked NBA players to tell us about the best game in their basketball career. This week: Jeff Green.

“What he’s done, probably, is focus more on the mental side of it,” Connaughton said. “Focus more on attention to detail with his jump shot, attention to detail with how teams are playing him defensively and kind of looking at what kind of stuck at the end of last year — and how do be ready to combat that this year.”

That’s maybe the biggest challenge the Bucks face — they know the playoffs will define their success. They already have proven how good they can be in the regular season. Won’t they be anxious to get back? Don’t they want to show what they’ve learned?

“It’s a long season. Playoff basketball is different than regular-season basketball. We’ll see when the playoff time comes,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “...We can’t skip any steps in this process. The expectations, we don’t worry about them. We don’t look at them.”

Antetokounmpo hasn’t been afraid to make those expectations perfectly clear. This isn’t last season’s Bucks. This team is smarter, older, more ready to win. In a league in which change is defining so much, it makes sense that an old contender would evolve too.

“We’re better. We’re better,” he repeated this week. “The team can get a lot better and is going to be a lot better.”


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