The clock is ticking on everything the Milwaukee Bucks have built the last few years, title contenders facing adversity they have yet to prove they can conquer.
And if they’re not careful, the clock could be ticking on their time with a homegrown MVP who desperately wants to live up to his billing.
The officiating gaffes only seemed to prolong the inevitable, the basketball gods ensuring a just result was the conclusion as the Miami Heat took an improbable 2-0 lead Wednesday night on the team with the NBA’s best record.
As certain and as clear as the Bucks speak on matters off the court, ready to forfeit a game in the name of social justice causes that matter, they seem as skittish and unsure about playoff basketball. For the better part of two games, Miami has made the most comfortable team in the NBA look uncomfortable — and whether the Heat realize it or not, they could be putting on the best recruiting job on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s set to enter unrestricted free agency after next season.
They’ve contained him and shown the soon-to-be two-time Most Valuable Player his biggest warts in a raw but controlled fashion, similar to the job the Toronto Raptors did to him for the last four games in the conference finals last year.
It’s no wonder many in league circles believe Miami and Toronto are the frontrunners in the Antetokounmpo sweepstakes, with one observer telling Yahoo Sports “it’s an open secret” within the Orlando bubble.
Miami looks like the perfect mistress with their culture, the ability to morph into different identities at a moment’s notice but yet still feel like a team playing within itself.
In Game 1, Jimmy Butler took over in the most tangible of ways with a cool 40-ball.
In Game 2, Butler hit the clutch free throws on an empty court, but Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic took center stage, looking every bit like a team ready to snatch supremacy in this uncertain environment.
The Bucks look ill-prepared at this moment — although one wouldn’t put it past them to snap out of their lethargy to hit a few shots, find themselves, and march onto the next round — but the Heat force them to be things they don’t want to be.
At their best, the ball is whipping and opponents heads are spinning, unaware of where the knockout punch is coming from.
But so far, they’re bracing for the overhand right, tentative and second-guessing what made them great — just the way Butler, Bam Adebayo and the rest of the Heat want things: off-balance and chaotic.
Erik Spoelstra doesn’t get high marks in the Coach of the Year category, but the Heat seem both prepared for the moment and for Antetokounmpo, who can’t be forgotten about in this equation. They’ve scouted him and look ready for every move he makes, so much so that Spoelstra doesn’t want to come across like he has the answers — when it’s clear he does.
“This is what great players do, present challenges,” Spoelstra said. “You want it to be easy? It’s not gonna be easy. He’s not gonna stop. He’s incredibly gifted and aggressive and he’s gonna put you in compromising positions.”
“I would never say ...” before his voice trailed off, reverting from the wide-eyed wonder to the CIA-like Pat Riley disciple.
And there’s no counter from Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff to this point, partially due to their own regular-season excellence.
The first punch has been their best punch for the last two seasons, the league’s best point differential in both, barely tested in what amounts to 82 single-game exhibitions.
But in the playoffs, you’d better be able to adjust on the fly and you can’t leave your best player in positions so unfamiliar that he starts looking less than MVP worthy, because it won’t fly well if he accepts his second consecutive award in anything less than a pregame environment.
The verdict isn’t yet in on Budenholzer, but his stubbornness to this point has been costly. Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have to be the headliners, but Miami looks as prepared as any team for what the Bucks do well.
And the Bucks have no answers for this pop quiz to this point.
It’s easy to see why the Bucks believe in what they do. It’s led to dominating regular seasons featuring an efficient offense that is no match for most teams, a 6-foot-11 forward who can physically overwhelm even above-average defenders and a roster chock-full of complementary players who genuinely allow Antetokounmpo to play MVP ball.
Antetokounmpo’s counting stats looked regular enough — and he had some thunderous moments — but the Heat made him look far less than his line of 29 points and 14 rebounds.
But mostly, it looks as if Antetokounmpo makes the game easy compared to the game coming to him easily, a huge difference in a playoff setting.
In short, he looks like another two-time MVP at 25 years old who needed a trip to South Beach and the school of Spoelstra to realize his potential: LeBron James.
James was a generational talent before joining the Heat but became an all-time great during his four-year stint in Miami, refining his game after Spoelstra challenged him, pushed back against him and stepped up for James when it counted most.
But the Bucks can’t operate in fear — of either losing the series or even Antetokounmpo. Luckily for them, they didn’t drop two games at home or those ghosts from playoff past would be haunting them in the little sleep they can muster in the bubble.
At their best, they throw you off — either with a bold locker room move or floor-spreading efficiency.
They’d be best to discover from boldness in the next few days before this adversity catches them, yet again.
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