When the Bucks greeted the turn of the month with three consecutive home losses, head coach Mike Budenholzer rightly noted that a pity party should not be forthcoming. “You’ve got to go out and compete. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody’s going to worry about you.” Never mind that the cause of the green and cream has been handicapped by injuries to vital cogs, including starters Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Donte DiVincenzo and reserves Bobby Portis, Rodney Hood, and Semi Ojeleye. Forget that the manpower deficiencies have compelled the defending champions to rely on such raw talents as Sandro Mamukelashvili and Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
Not that the Bucks are complaining. Two-time Most Valuable Player awardee Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to perform at a high level and, more importantly, stay healthy; over the last two seasons, he missed games in the double-digits due to a variety of ailments. And, as Budenholzer knows only too well, it’s not how they start but how they finish that ultimately counts. They ended both their 2018-19 and 2019-20 regular campaigns with the best record, only to falter in the playoffs. Meanwhile, they were merely seventh-best leaguewide last season, but managed to gain momentum and peak at the right time en route to the title.
That said, there can be no denying the Bucks’ relative lack of competitiveness of late, and of its significance as a warning sign if nothing else. They’re being outrebounded every time out, and by a wide margin. They’re also playing with much less pace than they’ve been used to, and yet own a negative net rating. Taken together, the developments underscore their inadequacies on defense, and to the point where there is even greater pressure on them to be nothing short of perfect when it comes to scoring opportunities.
The Bucks won yesterday to push their slate to six and six, barely enough to crowd the Raptors for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. To be sure, a full 85% of the campaign still has to be negotiated, and it bears noting anew that they were middling at best much father into their ultimately successful run for the hardware last season. And who knows? The forced thrusting of erstwhile marginal figures into the limelight may yet prep them for the more important battles ahead.
ANTHONY L. CUAYCONG has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.