The Milwaukee Bucks have a lot going for them, and it’s hard to envision a team beating them in a best-of-seven series in the NBA playoffs. They may not be the contender for the championship, but they are a contender, a member of the highest-ranked tier of teams that are expected to make it the farthest.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having yet another MVP-caliber season. Khris Middleton is an All-Star level wing who can score at all levels while running the offense capably. Jrue Holiday is an All-Star level guard who plays defense better than most people do anything while also hitting tough shots in clutch situations. Brook Lopez is an All-Defensive Team level center who seals off the paint, makes opponents hesitate before testing him at the rim, while also stretching the floor and scoring inside on offense when need be. Surrounding that quartet is a stable of capable role players, some known for their offense (Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis, Joe Ingles) and some for their defense (Wes Matthews, Jevon Carter), and one (Pat Connaughton) that does a little bit of everything. Not only that, this crew has achieved success before, as most of these players earned a ring in the 2021 NBA Finals as members of the Bucks. Who’s beating that squad?!
If they’re all healthy.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Khris Middleton was able to practice today.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) February 23, 2023
Budenholzer: "I think he had a really good break. He looked good today and we're optimistic that he's in a very good place and did everything in practice today. And we'll see how he feels tomorrow." https://t.co/gZwDIE33bO
We asked a few more questions about Giannis Antetokounmpo's injury/status.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) February 23, 2023
Here are some follow-ups from @JimOwczarski and @ZoraStephenson : pic.twitter.com/w9IbFjhZLA
The Bucks are near-unbeatable when they’re at full-strength, and a luxury that fans have enjoyed for years now is that the Bucks are often at full-strength. They absolutely partake in load management and the team is famously slow to re-introduce players who miss time from injuries. This is all in the aims of prepping the team for maximum freshness in the postseason, when the games slow down to a grind and everybody already has 82 regular seasons in their rearview mirror. Fatigue is the foe that comes for every athlete sooner or later, and the Bucks’ strategy has been to stave it off for as long as possible by strategically managing the minutes that build up during the regular season.
Usually, it works! Is it going to work again this time? It might, but it feels riskier than ever.
Khris Middleton has missed exactly half of the games this regular season (41) and is still not back in his normal starting role. He has looked much more like himself over this last stretch while coming off the bench (as opposed during his first return earlier in the season), but he’s not 100%. Giannis Antetokounmpo has not missed any games with his current injury (right wrist sprain) because of the timing – he got hurt in the last game before the All Star break, which ends tomorrow – but there is no public estimate for when he should return.
Pat Connaughton is coming back from a calf injury. Bobby Portis is working his way through an MCL sprain. Joe Ingles continues to ease into his spot in the rotation after missing time recovering from an ACL tear. Jae Crowder isn’t hurt, but also hasn’t played in nine months so will require a ramp-up period. These are all significant players who will be counted on during the playoff run, but their absence now also poses a slight risk to the players on the roster who are healthy and available.
Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez have, to their credit, been stabilizing forces for the team all season. They have over-extended themselves in order to buoy the team when their most important teammates have missed time, and the Bucks’ record has benefitted from it...but is there a possibility that they gave too much too early? Grayson Allen and Jevon Carter, clearly in the third tier of players of consequence on this roster, have also been mainstays this year; of course it is the hope that they are able to reduce their minutes as others increase theirs, but having them available is still a crucial component to the Bucks’ desired outcome: winning an NBA title. Can the team withstand their loss should luck turn against them?
Admittedly, the premise of this post is entirely hypothetical, and the tone is intentionally nervous. It’s also partially a testament to how razor-thin the margin for error is in the NBA playoffs; after all, the Bucks almost beat the Boston Celtics in the second round last year while missing Khris Middleton. Things would have been different...if. If, that pesky qualifier, the caveat that simultaneously offers both the glitter of glory and glimmers of false hope.
If the Bucks are healthy, they will win. Will the Bucks be healthy? They’re certainly not right now, and time is running out for that to turn around.