Commentary: Bucks’ early playoff exit, again, leads to questions about future
Coach Mike Budenholzer’s voice cracked, the corners of his eyes reddened and his insides churned.
His team, the Milwaukee Bucks, was eliminated from the NBA playoffs on Tuesday in a loss to the Miami Heat. His star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was too hurt to play. And his mind had to unwind the impossible.
The Bucks have won more games than any team the last two seasons, and they failed to advance to the NBA Finals for another year.
The loss certainly pushed them headfirst into a pit of uncertainty just in time for the most uncertain NBA offseason in history.
Yet, there’s more.
It was the Bucks who decided to stay in their locker room and brought sports to a stop in the name of fighting racism and police brutality.
Reconciling that level of pride in social justice with the pain of losing is complicated.
“I think the character and humanity to stand and be on the right side of history like we did, led by George [Hill] and Sterling [Brown], that was emotional,” Budenholzer said as he fought off tears. “It’s such a great group. I think winning is important. We had high expectations, starting the season, throughout the season, coming here. You always want to realize those expectations.
“But the relationships, the character, what this group did — it would be great if we could have both. But, you know, if you had to choose one, I’d like to be with guys with high character who stand for something.”
Budenholzer’s complex feelings capture so much of the spirit of the NBA’s bubble experiment. It’s a historic time and there’s genuine excitement to be a part of it. But the costs are severe, the isolation is real and the sacrifices are painful.
Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 to win the series 4-1.
As players and teams face elimination, the magnetism of wanting to be home pushes them one way when pride in competition pulls them another.
The tough decisions don’t stop for Milwaukee now that its season does. In a lot of ways, they’re just getting started and they’ll be happening at a time with a ton of variables.
No one knows when the NBA draft will be (it was postponed again Tuesday), when free agency will start, when or how next season will begin. If all that wasn’t enough, Milwaukee can’t know for sure whether the franchise’s best player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will commit to them beyond next season, when his rookie contract expires.
They’ll need to decide if Budenholzer is the right coach. They’ll have to look at their roster and decide if there’s a big upgrade to be made.
Rival executives wondered if the Bucks would pursue Chris Paul before the Thunder became a playoff team. Now with Oklahoma City and coach Billy Donovan parting ways, a more earnest roster rebuild seems imminent, which could put Paul back in play.
All of these decisions will be made with Antetokounmpo’s future in mind.
The All-Star forward can sign a five-year, super-maximum extension this offseason, keeping him with the franchise that drafted and helped develop him from a mystery to a megastar.
If he doesn’t, the Bucks will have to try to guess how serious Antetokounmpo is about staying. Losing him in free agency after next season would be bad. Losing him without acquiring players or draft picks in a trade would be even worse.
For his part, Antetokounmpo sounds like someone committed to staying.
After the loss Tuesday, he said he appreciated the Bucks putting his health above a playoff game that he wanted to play. When asked about the team’s experience in the bubble, he spoke about the Bucks’ future like he was a part of it.
“Hopefully we can build a culture in Milwaukee, that for many years, we can come and compete every single year for a championship,” he said.
Anthony Davis joined Giannis Antetokoumpo and Rudy Gobert on the NBA All-Defensive first team. Clippers Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley are on second team.
Even before Antetokounmpo’s injury in Game 3, it seemed like the Bucks didn’t have a title run in them this year. Golden State’s Draymond Green has been given credit for saying there are 16-game players and 82-game players. It’s his way of saying some are built for the playoffs while others are not.
Maybe Antetokounmpo and the Bucks aren’t a 16-game team.
But all of that seemed secondary as the Bucks filed out of the building and onto their buses, their impact on the moment so clearly more memorable than the result of a second-round series.
Veteran Wesley Matthews said the Bucks organization, Budenholzer included, never faulted them for pressing pause on their title hunt.
“The fact that they had our backs, their passion for what’s right. There isn’t black and white, it’s just right and wrong. They supported us. We saw the passion from coach. We saw the passion from the front office, saw the passion from the whole organization. We saw the passion from the league. It was a great feeling.”
As Matthews spoke, the words inked on the inside of his left arm — a tattoo he got years ago — captured it all.
“Life comes and goes,” it read, “but legacies remain.”
Though this team left without a title, without any clear answers about its future, it can be comfortable with its legacy.
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