At every stage, the intensity increases – regular season to playoffs, first round to second round, second round to conference finals, conference finals to NBA Finals. I’ve long believed the biggest jump occurs between the first round and second round. That’s the first time a majority of teams are not involved. The spotlight gets so much brighter when everyone focuses on just eight remaining teams rather than splitting their attention between 30 and even 16 teams. Attention is no longer divided. It’s shared among every team left. Simultaneously, quality of play skyrockets. The adjustment can be jarring.
This is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s first appearance in the second round.
Though he made that easy to forget with a dominant Game 3 against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo still occasionally shows his playoff inexperience. After Milwaukee took a 3-0 lead over the Pistons in their first-round series, Antetokounmpo talked about how good it’d feel to advance and what to expect in a second-round series. Now, he’s sounding as if he’s satisfied with winning Game 3 in Boston to take a 2-1 series lead entering Game 4 in Boston tonight.
Antetokounmpo, as paraphrased by Zach Lowe of ESPN:
We came here, and we did our job. Our job is to get one.
Obviously, actions matter far more than words. Maybe Antetokounmpo just didn’t choose his words carefully enough. After all, he still stepped up to lead Milwaukee to a sweep of Detroit.
But Antetokounmpo sets the tone for the Bucks. His teammates listen to him. What they hear from him matters.
The Pistons weren’t good enough to do anything about Antetokounmpo looking ahead. If Milwaukee is content with a split in Boston and doesn’t bring enough energy and focus tonight, the Celtics will make the Bucks pay.
As the team with home-court advantage (i.e., the team that was better during the regular season), Milwaukee would still be in the driver’s seat of this series either way. But the advantage would be significantly larger with a Game 4 win.
Teams with home-court advantage tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven series have won it 79% of the time. Teams with home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 98% of the time.
Antetokounmpo plays hard. He wants to win. But there are degrees, and I’ll be watching the Bucks’ urgency closely tonight.