No team enters the NBA playoffs with more pressure than the Milwaukee Bucks.
After failing to live up to postseason expectations the past two seasons — including a loss to Miami in the bubble last year — Milwaukee enters a playoff series against those same Heat Saturday with their coach’s seat getting warm and questions about whether the roster and stylistic changes the team made this season are enough. Hanging over it all is the cloud of long-term concern that while two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his contract extension to stay with the Bucks, if the team continues its postseason stumbles this marriage may not last forever.
Will things be different this year for the Bucks, and if so, how?
Antetokounmpo gave an honest answer to that Thursday, essentially saying the results will speak for themselves. That answer was chopped up and became headlines because he said he didn’t know for sure if things would be different. The full answer is more nuanced but still unusually honest. In sport, players are conditioned to answer these questions with bravado and promises of success, even if it is false bravado. Antetokounmpo is more open than that.
— Chancellor Johnson (@ChancellorTV) May 20, 2021
“I don’t know if this year is gonna be different, I’m not gonna lie to you. I didn’t say that. It might be the same, who knows? We’ll see. The results are gonna talk for themselves at the end, but at the end of the day, I don’t get too high, don’t get too low.
“Like last year, probably because of the bubble, I wasn’t able to get away from basketball. Like, losing a game and just going to the hotel and seeing the plays that beat you, you just got so low about yourself. Then you listen to the media, what the media has to say. They say ‘Oh, they’re terrible’ and you kinda take it to heart and you’re like ‘Man, are we terrible?’ Then when you win a game, ‘Oh, they’re so great’ and ‘Ah, yeah, we so great, we’re going to win the whole…’ Don’t get too high, don’t get too low, just do what you do and go out there and compete because at the end of the day you’re not going to win 16 games straight. And hopefully we don’t lose four games straight. So yeah, don’t get too high, don’t get too low, just go out there and compete and have fun.”
The Clippers’ Paul George talked about the same thing Thursday, saying what will be different for him this year is being out of the bubble and going home and spending time with his family, getting away from basketball, and the pressure of the postseason. He will have an outlet not available last playoffs.
The “Groundhog Day” nature of the bubble wore on some players, some teams more than others. It was not a mentally healthy situation for many and it showed on the court in some cases. For all the COVID-related challenges and limited fans at games this season, these playoffs will feel more traditional for players.
Will all that — plus the additions of Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker — make things different for the Bucks this postseason? Antetokounmpo doesn’t know the answer to that — and that’s okay. We want these kinds of honest answers from players, not cliches and false bravado.
The Bucks have a hard path ahead through these playoffs. Antetokounmpo sounds like someone entering the postseason in a better mental place, which is good news for himself and Milwaukee. The results will speak for themselves.