The Milwaukee Bucks have a tough task ahead of them, perhaps the toughest that could have been constructed. In their quest to exorcise the demons of NBA playoffs past, they will need to vanquish three formidable Eastern Conference foes, each presenting a different challenge for the Bucks to overcome...and that’s just what they need to do to reach the NBA Finals.
First, the Miami Heat. Last year’s East representatives in the championship round persevered through the ups and downs of a COVID-influenced regular season (plus the spate of injuries you’d expect from a veteran-heavy squad), and are the first test for Milwaukee. Infamously in Wisconsin and across the NBA, the Heat are also the team who ended the Bucks’ postseason prematurely last year in the Orlando bubble, and their recipe for success is largely unchanged. Erik Spoelstra will cook up moves and countermoves to stymie Milwaukee’s high-powered offense, while Jimmy Butler bludgeons his way into free throws and Bam Adebayo picks out teammates from the high post. The Heat are inconsistent, but historically save their best efforts for when it counts, as we all know too well.
If Milwaukee makes it through, the Brooklyn Nets are the most likely opponent to await them in the Conference Semifinals. Boasting the star-studded trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, not to mention big names like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, Brooklyn has so much offensive firepower they could overcome Steve Nash’s relative inexperience as a head coach. The Nets are for real, no doubt about it, and will need to be outscored to be bested. With Harden dealing with a hamstring issue and Kyrie dealing with everything he’s dealing with, it’s possible this basketball Death Star may not be fully operational...but that’s not a bet I’d take.
If Milwaukee pulls off the upset and makes it through to the Conference Finals, it’s widely expected that the Philadelphia 76ers will meet them there. Milwaukee has enjoyed some recent success against Philly, but not consistently and not with both teams at full strength in a playoff environment, and Doc Rivers seems to have found the combination that unlocks the Sixers. Joel Embiid is a leader in the MVP race, even with extensive injury absences, and presents a most unique challenge on both ends of the court (especially if his preposterous shooting splits hold up). Ben Simmons might not shoot threes but he remains a terror on defense and in transition, and former Buck Tobias Harris is scoring at a level of efficiency few thought he would actually reach. The Sixers have a process that works, and beating them would be just as difficult as the path to get to them in the first place.
To get through all this, the Bucks will have to play their absolute best basketball, with no margin for error or room to breathe. Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to be at his best. Ditto for Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Mike Budenholzer, all the way down the list, to the last man. There is no alternative; either the third time’s the charm for this group, or it’s the end of the line and something has to change. They march along a razor’s edge, and if they don’t falter...they then earn the right to play the Western Conference team that achieves the same on the other side of the bracket.
Perhaps it’s too much. Perhaps these expectations are impossible to meet, and the success everyone professes to have been focused on all season long was never realistic. But one thing feels certain: this Bucks team is as prepared to walk this path as any iteration before them. If any Bucks team can take on all comers, it’s this one. And winning the whole damn thing while taking the hardest route will make the victory taste all the sweeter.