BOSTON — The events of Feb. 8 would’ve broken most teams, especially one already playing below its means, sinking to the Eastern Conference basement. But not the Milwaukee Bucks.
Khris Middleton’s return midway through the first quarter that night brought hope to a season marred by the do-everything wing’s freak torn hamstring in the offseason. Two quarters later, that hope was lost when Jabari Parker’s breakout season ended in another ACL tear, ensuring the Bucks would be without at least one of their three best players for all but six minutes of the 2016-17 season.
But third-year Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd’s philosophy is rooted in keeping your composure, building trust between teammates and learning from each game — each possession, even — and that’s supposed to stay the same regardless of record or personnel. Easier said than done, of course, but easier done when you’ve got Giannis Antetokounmpo at the top of your roster.
“Listening,” Giannis said in response to a question about how and where he’d like to see his career develop. “That’s the most important thing, listening at this age, because when you’re 21, 22, you think you know everything, but you don’t know nothing. You’ve got to keep listening, and hopefully one day I can be a player to lead this team to the playoffs and hopefully to the finals.”
Antetokounmpo marked the playoffs off his checklist in his second season, when the Chicago Bulls made short work of his Bucks in the first round, but this time around feels different. While the 2015 team sputtered into that series, these Bucks are marching into the postseason as one of the NBA’s hottest teams, all but assuring themselves of a playoff spot with a gritty road win against the East-leading Boston Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back on Wednesday.
“It’s a great character test for us,” said Kidd. “We’ve been tested all season, and understanding the ups and downs of an NBA season, it’s about March and April, playing your best.”
A win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday combined with an Atlanta Hawks loss to the Bulls the following night left the Bucks all alone in fifth place. That seemed inconceivable on Feb. 8, when they lost Parker, 2014’s second overall pick, who was coming into his own after recovering from his first ACL surgery. Milwaukee lost to the Miami Heat that fateful night and then at home to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers two nights later, falling a season-worst eight games below .500 (22-30) — 11th in the East.
So, how did a team trudge through the February and March doldrums of the NBA season, in Milwaukee no less, and emerge even better after losing a burgeoning franchise cornerstone?
For starters, Middleton returned. The 25-year-old, whom Kidd called one of the league’s most underrated offensive talents, gave them stability, providing offensive continuity as both a second option behind Antetokounmpo and a go-to guy on the second unit, since the Bucks have been staggering their top two playmakers’ minutes. All the while, he’s brought the defensive intensity that’s also made him one of the NBA’s most underrated players on that end, and that Milwaukee had been so sorely lacking all season.
“I’ve said it all year long, but every team goes through some type of regression during the season,” said Middleton, who stuck around the team during the rehabilitation process, if only to ensure he would fit seamlessly into the mix when he returned as close to 100 percent healthy as he could. “But it just matters how much you stay with it, stay with the plan and not collapse mentally. We were able to find a way out of it, and we did it with our defense, man.”
Middleton has averaged 15.5 points (on 44.7 percent 3-point shooting), 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals in 30.3 minutes in 24 games since his return. Asked if he felt pressure to make up for Parker’s absence, Middleton said, “We’re not depending on one or two guys. We’re a complete team with everyone that’s active. Everybody that’s played this season has helped us big-time in many ways. We’re not a team built on one guy, so when one guy goes down, like Jabari or [Michael] Beasley, we have confidence that other guys can step up and fill the void.”
Indeed, neither Milwaukee’s offense — Kidd’s read-and-react system of moving the ball, finding mismatches, preferably in the post, and sending cutters diving toward the basket — nor its defense, a swarming scheme of versatile long bodies attacking pick-and-rolls, recovering when the ball swings and closing passing lanes to create turnovers, are dependent on one or two guys. The Bucks feature a healthy blend of young potential, established veterans and a 39-year-old Jason Terry acting as Kidd’s assistant coach in training. But they also have Antetokounmpo.
“We were saying it wasn’t just going to be one guy that would step up and replace [Parker],” said Terry. “You’re replacing 20 points a night, and we had to do it by committee. Everyone has not only expanded their role, but really took it to heart. Obviously, we’d love to have him back, but the guys have done an outstanding job — especially Giannis. Giannis has taken a lot on his shoulders as far as offensively being the focal point, but mixing it up, being able to facilitate and trust his teammates and play off of other guys, too. He’s taken his game to another level.”
And then Terry leveled the ultimate praise on Antetokounmpo: “He has the same work ethic as Dirk had, and that’s the comparison that I have for him. His work ethic is just like Nowitzki’s was, without a doubt.” Kidd drew the same comparison back in November, when he said, “There is no ceiling. It’s up to him. You don’t put a ceiling on Dirk at the age of 19 or 20. It’s wherever he takes you.”
Giannis, who considers Nowitzki “the best European player that’s ever played the game,” is a different beast than Dirk, and he knows he’s got a ways to go before entering that conversation. Still, his 2016-17 campaign is quite a step toward being considered one of the NBA’s best ever international players. His 23.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game still lead the Bucks in every category, and that’s held steady in Parker’s absence.
So, it really has been a collective effort rallying around the injury to raise the team’s overall level of play. Tony Snell emerged as a capable shooter in Middleton’s absence, and then moved alongside him when they lost Parker. Kidd benched starting center John Henson around the time Parker went down, replacing him with rookie Thon Maker, whom Kevin Garnett recently claimed “will be the MVP of the league one day.” That allowed Greg Monroe to continue coming off the bench, where he’s played well this season as a mismatch nightmare for opposing second units. And second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon replaced Matthew Dellavedova in the starting lineup.
“We lost Parker. Bad loss. He’ll come back healthy. Shout out Jabari Parker,” Giannis said from Boston. “But a lot of guys have stepped up. We got back Khris, and a lot of other guys have stepped up, so there’s no weight on my shoulders. I think there’s even less weight, because guys know, ‘Oh, he went down,’ and everybody stepped up, and the weight is even lighter.”
It was Brogdon who finished off the Celtics on a play that embodied the composure, trust and understanding that Kidd has been preaching all season.
On Milwaukee’s final possession, Antetokounmpo served as a decoy in the corner, while Middleton dribbled into a double-team on the right wing and found Monroe on the high post. When Al Horford locked him up, Monroe kicked it out to the rookie. With the clock winding down, Brogdon split Boston’s two All-Defensive-caliber guards — Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart — before beating the shot clock over Bradley.
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In the locker room afterward, Bucks personnel were already making the case that the four-year finished product out of Virginia should be the Rookie of the Year, arguing that first-year Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric is doing his damage in meaningless minutes while Brogdon’s working in the heart of a playoff race.
“He’s not a rookie,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose attempts to recruit Brogdon failed when he was still at Butler. “He’s not a rookie, and I say that with complete respect to him. Like, that guy, he knows how to play. He’s known how to play for a long time. He was a tremendous college player who was an ultimate winner, and he’s just picked right up where he left off.”
It was Middleton’s turn on Friday night, drilling a go-ahead 3-pointer with 40 seconds to go in a 108-105 overtime win against the Pistons. He finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, Antetokounmpo posted a near-triple-double (28 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists) and Maker logged a career-high 23 points (9-of-12 shooting), including the game-tying bucket to close the fourth quarter.
All those moving parts in Parker’s absence somehow solidified the Bucks as the East’s winningest team in the month of March, rolling up a 14-4 record. Their defense improved with Middleton in the lineup, but little else has changed in terms of scheme. They’re not a great rebounding team, which is weird given all their size. But they play slow and smart in the half court, ranking as one of the league’s top teams in terms of passing, taking care of the ball and shooting efficiently, thanks in part to easy transition buckets off forced turnovers and almost 40 points on 32 shots at the rim per game.
Kudos to Kidd, whose status as a future Hall of Famer and champion commands the respect of a young team, which allows his philosophy to sink in, even at a time when all hope seemed lost.
“Coach Kidd has done a terrific job being patient while we’ve been in our lows, while we weren’t having good stretches,” said Brogdon, who has transitioned from college two-guard to NBA point guard as a rookie, “and he’s coached us really well to this point, and I think he deserves credit.”
Kidd constructed a diverse coaching staff of basketball lifers, former players and rising star Sean Sweeney, a 33-year-old college point guard charged with molding Milwaukee’s multi-positional players into a defense capable of covering more ground than thought possible, a string of arms switching and contracting from the 3-point line to the basket and back again. This season also brought Terry, who acts an extension of the coaching staff in the locker room.
“That’s why he brought me here,” Terry said of Kidd. “I want to be a coach when I retire, and he’s just been teaching me on-the-job training every day, and it’s been a great process, especially when you have a group like this, when you have young stars like Giannis, Khris Middleton. Teaching guys that haven’t been to this level, haven’t won at this level, a guy like Greg Monroe, but then also sharing experiences with a rookie like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. The names go on and on. It’s just a young nucleus that needed a veteran presence.”
Terry and Kidd teamed with Nowitzki to win the 2011 title on the Dallas Mavericks, and they’re now passing that recipe along to the young Bucks, with Giannis in the superstar role. Milwaukee isn’t a true contender now, but they’re a team nobody’s looking forward to meeting in the playoffs, not with Antetokounmpo acting as the best player on the court in wins over the Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards at various points this year.
“They’re really good,” Stevens said after Wednesday’s 103-100 loss. “I mean, they’ve been one of the best teams in the East over the past month and a half, since Middleton came back, so I’m not surprised by their level. And their level is really high. … When we go small versus them, we look small. And the paint hurt us tonight. We’ve got to figure that out when we play them again.”
Even if the Celtics, Cavs, Raptors or Wizards figure them out in the first round — and all four will be favored to do so — the Bucks have shown real growth under Kidd over the past seven weeks, and they’ll be the better for it when Parker returns next season. It’s been a work in progress since the franchise bottomed out three years ago, and that hasn’t changed, but Milwaukee discovered an identity in the days since Feb. 8. They’re a team that can’t be broken.
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