Hope you enjoy this Labor Day weekend, because once it’s over, there’s a whole slew of takes on the way.
The Bucks gave up 40 points to the Heat in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal on Friday night, blowing what had been a 14-point lead in the third, and the NBA’s top overall seed now trails the best-of-seven series, 3-0, after a 115-100 stunner.
And since no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff round ever, it’s time to prepare for the reactions when the Bucks’ bubble bursts. Obviously, it’s not guaranteed, but Jimmy Butler, who’s been just a perfect fit in Miami, doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to let a historic collapse happen on his watch.
The last team with the NBA’s best record that didn’t make the conference finals was the 2012 Bulls, which comes with two caveats. First, it was a 66-game season because of a lockout. Second, and more importantly, Derrick Rose — a year after he was MVP of the league — blew out his knee in Game 1 of the first against the 76ers, and Chicago lost four of the next five games without him. The year before that, the Bulls also had the NBA’s top record and failed to reach the Finals, as they lost the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat in the first season LeBron James was there.
That’s what the Bucks are about to match, except they’re not going down in back-to-back years because they ran into LeBron James and their best player suffered a career-altering injury. With all due respect to Kawhi Leonard and last year’s champion Raptors, and to Butler and the Heat, they’re standard-issue good teams with superstars — losing to them is different than getting beaten by peak LeBron and having your team doomed by a freak injury.
The Bucks’ average scoring margin this season was plus-10.1, which is ludicrous. It’s only 0.8 lower than the 73-win Warriors of 2016, which naturally brings up the fact that the 2016 Warriors were the first team to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Again, LeBron was involved on the other side, so there’s that. But one of the takes that’s going to be out there will ring familiar, that the Bucks, like those Warriors, weren’t challenged enough during the regular season, so they weren’t tough enough in the playoffs.
Those Warriors, of course, came back from 3-1 down in the Western Conference finals against the Thunder, and were the defending NBA champions, so it’s not like they hadn’t been tested before. And it’s also not like squeaking into the playoffs and then making a run to the Finals is a common thing. Does every top team that doesn’t make the finals lack some kind of toughness? How can that even be measured? It’s lazy, sloppy guesswork.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility of some kind of issue for the Bucks on the mental side, at least this year. Milwaukee has been basura in the bubble, now 7-9 in Orlando, including the regular-season extension program, and 4-4 in the playoffs proper. Maybe the Gran Destino Hotel just isn’t their vibe. Maybe the environment better suits Butler, who got a noise complaint because he was dribbling in his room. “What went wrong in the bubble?” Is a valid question to ask if the Bucks don’t pull off a historic comeback, but it’ll all be mere speculation in the immediate aftermath.
One argument that would appear to hold water is that Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t play enough, and while he did say after Game 3 (about his twisted ankle, but with obvious subtext), “I could play more,” while coach Mike Budenholzer held firm that “35-36 [minutes], I think that’s pushing the ceiling.”
Leonard, the king of load management, has played 38.1 minutes per game in the playoffs. Notoriously injury prone Joel Embiid got 36.3 minutes per game in the 76ers’ first-round loss to the Celtics. And 38 other players have higher per-game minutes averages in the playoffs than Antetokounmpo’s 33.2. Then again, Antetokounmpo’s minutes total doesn’t matter much if he shoots 7-for-21 from the field, including going 0-for-7 on threes, and the Bucks are outscored by 13 points with him on the floor, which is what happened in Game 3.
The explanation that rings true if the Bucks do bow out this quickly is that this is sports, shit happens sometimes, and this is 2020, the year of shit happening. That’s not as entertaining as Richard Jefferson coming up with the disrespectful-to-everyone involved take that “Giannis might be a Pippen,” but it also doesn’t make you look like an ass, saying that the best player in the league belongs as a sidekick, while also degrading a Hall of Famer as merely a sidekick.
It came a lot later than usual this year, because duh, but it’s now official that 2020 is not the year for the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993. So much for the legend of Thatcher Demko, as the Canucks’ backup goalie finally broke in the third period of the Golden Knights’ 3-0 win.
With the Stars advancing earlier on Friday as Joel Kiviranta made a name for himself by completing his first career hat trick with a Game 7 overtime goal against the Avalanche, the Western Conference finals will be between Dallas and Vegas, cities where the high temperatures on Sunday, the day of Game 1, are forecast to be 93 and 113, respectively. It’s supposed to be 59 in Edmonton. This bubble thing is working out alright.