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Planting The Seed: Coming to Terms With Milwaukee’s Playoff Positioning

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The Bucks are in third place in the Eastern Conference. It’s time to embrace it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks started this season with the same general expectations they had last year: get over the hump in the playoffs and make it to the NBA Finals. With significant changes to both the roster and the scheme over the offseason, as well as the reinforcement of other teams in the Eastern Conference, most implicitly understood that how the team would pursue their goals would be different, but were content as long as the objective remained the same.

As the season has progressed, the Bucks have remained a member of the NBA’s top tier, which also includes the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, though their record has put them behind their counterparts at this level. Through 50(ish) games of a 72(ish) game schedule, Milwaukee has kept pace with both the Sixers and Nets...but remained anywhere between 1 and 3 games behind them in the standings.

NBA Eastern Conference standings, as of April 7

As with anything in life, luck is a huge component of playoff seeding, and part of that is health and availability. To surpass either (or both) of their competitors, the Bucks would need to stay healthy and their opponents would have to have some of their core players end up out of uniform for some amount of time. During a season taking place amidst an ongoing global pandemic, this isn’t too difficult to imagine, but even normal seasons involve minor injuries that take time to recover from.

As things stand currently, the cookie did not crumble in the Bucks’ favor. Not only did Jrue Holiday miss 10 games thanks to the league’s health and safety protocols, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is missing time intermittently (4 of the last 10 games) with a lingering knee issue. The team has clearly struggled to withstand these losses, just like any other team would. On top of that, while Milwaukee’s chief competition in the East did have some of their star players miss time, most notably Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid, their teams managed to avoid falling off a cliff during their absences!

So here we are, 2.5 games back in the standings behind Brooklyn and Philadelphia, with only about 20 games to go in the regular season. It seems more and more likely that the Bucks will end up with the East’s third seed, meaning that their path to the NBA Finals will likely (barring a catastrophic first-round collapse) force them to beat both the Sixers and Nets.

So be it.

The NBA isn’t like a hand of poker, where you can simply fold when dealt a bad combination of cards. There is no avoiding the reality of certain circumstances; the only way out is through. Sure, the Bucks could have executed better and turned close losses into close wins to try and close the gap between them and their competitors. That’s always going to be the case. And yes, it would be preferable to maintain home court advantage in a playoff series – especially as some stadiums are slowly reopening their doors to fans – so that the degree of difficulty is a bit lower and your odds of success are a big higher. Because of the mistakes Milwaukee has made, they likely won’t be able to have every advantage going into the playoffs.

So be it.

Despite their weaknesses, the Bucks still have undeniable strengths. They should be able to compete against any other team in the NBA and, over the course of a seven-game series, they stand just as good a chance to win the requisite quartet of games as anybody else. Moreover, they’ve bolstered their newly-made top-heavy roster with key additions like PJ Tucker and Jeff Teague, who will help to shore up the Bucks’ remaining weak spots. They are not perfect, but they are more flexible and versatile than they were last time around, and there is plenty of reason for optimism once the regular season ends and the postseason begins.

Furthermore, there is a certain freedom to accepting that the top seed is probably beyond the Bucks’ reach, and trying on the perspective that it’s actually a good thing. Though they are certainly still in the mix and still have two games against both the Nets and Sixers, just because they can make up ground doesn’t mean they are a failure if they don’t make up that ground. For my part, I actually am starting to enjoy the idea of overcoming the odds and being treated as an underdog in the playoffs, and having to go through the other top teams to get to the championship round. Iron sharpens iron, after all.

So yes, it’s preferable that the Bucks win every game they play, regardless of context or circumstance. At the same time, doesn’t it sound satisfying to go out and beat Philly in Philly, then beat Brooklyn in Brooklyn, and get to the NBA Finals on a major hot streak and nothing else to lose? I would rather have more control over my own destiny too, if I had the choice, but there’s no harm in embracing the upside offered by traversing the more difficult path.