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Giannis Antetokounmpo looked exasperated.
By the Raptors’ smothering defense. By four straight losses. By growing speculation around his future.
Antetokounmpo tried to explain how the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. He tipped his cap to Kawhi Leonard. He vowed to come back better next season. He also didn’t even stay until the end of his postgame press conference following Milwaukee’s Game 6 elimination. Antetokounmpo fielded one last question then stood up, grabbed his water bottle and left without answering.
It was the frustrating end to a promising year.
Maybe it was exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed.
Milwaukee was good last season. Really good. The Bucks won 60 games and their first postseason series in 18 years.
But they lacked deep-playoff experience. They thought first-round exits the previous couple years had readied them. It wasn’t enough. They ran into a Toronto team that was more prepared to rise to the occasion, even after Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.
Most of the NBA makes the first round. Some first-round teams are mediocre. Their opponents don’t need to hit top gear. Attention is divided between 16 teams and eight series. The first round is bigger than the regular season, though only so much.
In the second round, it gets real. Practically every team is good. With only four series, each comes under a national microscope. Pressure increases exponentially. It’s difficult, nearing impossible, to duplicate the experience of playing that deep into the playoffs. Players just must go through it, usually losing the first time.
The NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984. In every year since then, the NBA champion has had significant prior experience beyond the first round.
Of the 35 NBA champions in this era, 33 gave at least 82% of their postseason minutes to players who’d already played beyond the first round in a prior year.
The two exceptions – 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics – clocked in at a still fairly high 69%. San Antonio gave significant roles to Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili, but still had experienced stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and David Robinson. Boston started youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, but obviously Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the core of that team.
The percentage of the Bucks’ 2019 postseason minutes given to players with prior experience beyond the first round? Just 47%.
Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had never advanced that far. Eric Bledsoe did it only as a second-year reserve with the Clippers in 2012.
Deep-playoff experience doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a near-mandatory perquisite. It’s just too difficult to understand the intensity, focus and skill necessary to succeed un that level without experiencing it first.
Antetokounmpo was particularly flummoxed. Leonard led a defense that keyed on him. Without a reliable jumper, Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough counters to fight back. The burden was mentally and physically exhausting – even for the regular-season MVP.
Perhaps coincidentally, the question Antetokounmpo didn’t answer was about the value of playoff experience.
He and the Bucks have it now, and that gives them a real chance at a championship this season.