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Backs Against the Wall: Bucks Repeat Chances Hinge on Game 7

2022 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

We have been here before.

The Milwaukee Bucks are fighting for their lives on the road in the seventh game of a 7-game series, just like last year. The Bucks are trying to best their opponent despite injury and cold shooting, just like last year.

But despite the familiar territory, Milwaukee is in a much different place going into tomorrow’s winner-take-all showdown against the Boston Celtics. And while it might be tough to admit, those differences make all the difference.

The most important issue affecting the Bucks in this 3-3 series is health. In the 2021 playoffs, Milwaukee lost Giannis Antetokounmpo for a very short amount of time after the series was already underway, and the Bucks only had to win twice in three attempts to best the Atlanta Hawks. In the 2022 postseason, though, Khris Middleton has been missing for the entire conference semifinals, meaning the Bucks have been playing without their starting wing all along.

To be clear, this was always the expectation. The report regarding Middleton’s availability happened before the first round was even over, and the verbiage leaves very little to the imagination; Khris was never going to play in the second round, and if Milwaukee somehow survives Boston tomorrow he still might not play in the Conference Finals. There have been other reports that contradict the original news, but those reports felt overly optimistic and never seemed feasible…and that has been proven to be the case. It is tempting to question why those other claims were made…but what’s done is done, and questioning it changes nothing right now (though hopefully the source of these reports is treated in accordance with the quality of their information going forward).

So Khris Middleton is out, and that void has completely undermined Milwaukee’s systems. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been transcendent…because he’s had to be. Jrue Holiday’s play has vacillated between outstanding and onerous…because he’s always been inconsistent. And the remaining players in the Bucks rotation have answered the call to fill in for Middleton’s absence…and largely have fallen short, because they just aren’t able to do all that needs doing for the Bucks without Khris.

So what can the Bucks do differently? They can make their threes, hopefully; Milwaukee is shooting 34.6% from deep for the playoffs, and an exceptionally-bad 31.0% against Boston. Beyond that…what else is there to do? The list of adjustments to make is short and desperate; the most popular suggestion on social media is swapping out George Hill for Jevon Carter. Proponents of the move cite Carter’s excellent playoff on-off numbers compared to Hill’s figures for this series…ignoring that most of Carter’s playing time came in the Bulls series. To reiterate a point I made on Twitter: if anyone thinks Carter taking Hill’s minutes is going to make a meaningful difference against Boston, they’re not focused on the Bucks’ actual structural problems.

The Milwaukee Bucks simply can’t produce points right now. They can defend with every ounce of energy and effort they can muster, but their offense has devolved into repeated instances of “Giannis Iso,” “Jrue Iso,” and “Pass to an open role player and hope they actually hit a three.” This isn’t borne of a lack of imagination, but a lack of options. Boston has struggled with Milwaukee’s defense, but sooner or later (and decidedly “later” in the case of Jayson Tatum) they were going to start producing more points because they have more options to work with. The Bucks haven’t been able to keep pace; Jevon Carter doesn’t fix that problem, no matter how dogged his defense is.

So is that it? Are the Bucks doomed? Strangely, the answer is “no” because they still have Giannis, who is capable of willing the team to victory. Antetokounmpo has done everything in his power for Milwaukee to be able to maintain their presence in the playoffs and defend their title…now it’s time for the rest of his supporting cast to push just a little bit harder to get the team past a tough and motivated opponent on their home court.

Here’s hoping the Bucks have anything left in the tank.