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Believe in the Bucks

Milwaukee is on pace for 70 wins, and Giannis is the favorite to win MVP again. So why aren’t the Bucks treated like runaway title favorites?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Milwaukee Bucks are the favorites to win the NBA title. To reach any other conclusion at this point requires an awful lot of work. You really have to go out of your way to discredit a team on a 70-win pace with a historic point differential led by the reigning MVP. It must be exhausting to explain around a season that dominant in order to make the case for another contender—to cherry-pick stats from the most remote places, and to mine through game after game for a shred of corroborating evidence. You can judge Giannis Antetokounmpo against the ghosts of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals—a series in which he averaged 23 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists per game and that Milwaukee nearly won—or against the waves of opponents who now attempt similar strategies and fail. Believing in the Bucks is really as simple as believing what’s in front of you.

Milwaukee has destroyed opponents so conclusively this season that Antetokounmpo often gets the fourth quarter as PTO. (At present, he ranks 101st in fourth-quarter minutes per game.) Not only have the Bucks waxed the Knicks by 26 points, as they did this week, but dropped the Clippers (with both of L.A.’s stars in the lineup) by 28. Basketball of this caliber plays in all time zones. By the numbers, Milwaukee is the NBA’s best team at home and on the road, though it’ll likely end up with home-court advantage throughout the postseason anyway. Relative to the other top contenders, the Bucks have both the best offense and the best defense. Let’s not misunderstand the burden of proof. Considering what’s become of the other three conference finalists from last season, Milwaukee is the closest thing the league has to an incumbent: a high-achieving team that understands itself completely.

A lack of intrigue around the Bucks only reinforces the point. On every winning team there is some player stuck in a role he doesn’t particularly like or getting fewer opportunities than he probably deserves. Whatever noise there is in Milwaukee rarely makes it out of the locker room. Antetokounmpo, for his part, leads the league in off-court deflections; references to his upcoming free agency in 2021 are often politely dismissed, played off by one of the game’s biggest stars as if he had never considered the thought. (The team’s ownership group knows better.)There are any number of compelling theories as to why the Bucks, now 36-6, have yet to really hold the attention of the basketball world. Perhaps it’s the natural result of a powerhouse team that leaves so little to the imagination.

In any case, the Bucks should take it as a compliment—a bit of flattering disregard in the Spursian tradition. Milwaukee crushes the teams it’s supposed to beat and dispatches most of the challengers who come its way. Since the opening week of the season, the Bucks have lost just four games with Antetokounmpo in the lineup: one to the Jazz on a Bojan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater; another by four to the Mavericks (while missing Eric Bledsoe); a Christmas Day game to the Sixers during which Antetokounmpo was bothered by a back injury (again without Bledsoe); and a largely inexplicable game against the Spurs earlier this month. Even in the rare cases when Antetokounmpo fails to ball up his opponents and dunk them through the rim, Milwaukee still sets the terms of every game it plays. No one scores very much at the rim against the Bucks, in part because of how much of a hassle it is to even get there. Those who manage to get past Bledsoe (a worthy first-team All-Defense selection last season), Khris Middleton, or George Hill will find Brook Lopez—an obelisk in sneakers—waiting in the paint while Giannis runs interference. It’s an entire system predicated on keeping opponents away from the very shots that might stabilize them.

Meanwhile, the Bucks respond with the full force of one of the game’s most potent offenses. There are really only two living defenders who give Antetokounmpo consistent problems (Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid), though a few more have the size and smarts to give themselves a chance. Dwelling on one trying series against the Raptors—who, even beyond Leonard, were guided by some brilliant defenders—takes for granted how many teams are virtually dead on arrival in their matchup with Giannis. It’s not as if backing off of Antetokounmpo and daring him to shoot is only a legal strategy in the summer months. Most of the teams who try it wind up taken for a ride with his transcontinental Euro-step.

When opponents try to load up against those drives, Milwaukee has subtly reshaped its offense to make defenders cover more ground. Giannis shooting passably from beyond the arc (33.2 percent) is nice, but it’s the way he’s reading the action that opens up new possibilities. One can hardly blame a living, breathing battering ram for treating the defenders in front of him like a stubborn door. Part of Antetokounmpo’s evolution, however, comes from understanding how to make a show of force that allows Middleton to slip in through the window. This is the crucible of every young superstar. To overcome it is the point.

It’s only a matter of time for Giannis, as it was for LeBron James before him. Players this talented and this forceful can’t be detained for long. There are places to be and series to win—provided they can find solvency with the team around them. Middleton thanklessly counterbalances the Bucks’ primary offense, and troubleshoots off the dribble when things go wrong. Along the way, he has scored comparably to (and more efficiently than) Jimmy Butler. Milwaukee has managed to compete in high-leverage playoff series while getting aggressively little from Bledsoe. Something—anything—from the point guard could be enough to put the Bucks over the top. If not, Mike Budenholzer can rely on Hill, Donte DiVincenzo (whose feel for the game fits this team beautifully), Wes Matthews, or, circumstances permitting, Kyle Korver. Positionality is a fluid construct where a team with Giannis is concerned, and Milwaukee has the stable of rotation players necessary to mix and match its way through a playoff bracket.

There is no certainty in any of this—only probability. The Lakers and Clippers are formidable. The Sixers, who were tailored to challenge the Bucks, could be dangerous if they sort themselves out. Yet almost every indicator available suggests that Milwaukee has the star and the team to tilt the championship odds in its favor. What the Bucks make of that opportunity is the story of the season, carried out in the background of the trade rumors and melodrama that make the NBA turn.