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Fleeting: Bucks’ Playoff Plans Take Another Blow

The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks trail the Miami Heat 2 games to 1.

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NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Confidence is a funny thing. The idea of knowing one’s self, and believing in one’s self, is universally considered to be a good thing. Whenever there is a shortage of confidence, the prescribed solution often reads like a family recipe: just add more confidence! Whether it’s a facade or genuine, more confidence will cure what ails you!

Until you overcorrect, and that extra ounce of confidence turns the whole thing into hubris, and all of a sudden you’re overextended, as if you’re hurtling down a snowy hill on skis and you need to use all of your energy to try and slow your momentum...before arrogance can exact its price.

Sure, those last two paragraphs might be misplaced, and this post a massive overreaction to the Milwaukee Bucks and their Game Three debacle against the Miami Heat. But one thing Bucks fans can agree on: things don’t exactly feel great right now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered a painful (but not major) injury after 10 minutes in Game One, and ever since he exited the Bucks have not been themselves. This is not a shock; the best player in the league suddenly becoming absent will understandably affect the team. But the Bucks don’t look weakened without Giannis, they look incapable.

The story of Game One was that the Heat shot unsustainably well while the Bucks shot unsustainably poorly. That, compounded by the Giannis injury, was an easy story to accept. “They won’t shoot that well again, and we won’t shoot that poorly again.” In Game Two, the script was flipped and Milwaukee tied an NBA record for threes made in a postseason game, seemingly rebounding from the disappointing opening to the series. Game Three? The Bucks took one solid step in the right direction...and then fell flat on their collective faces and couldn’t recover.

As our friend Eric Nehm recounts in The Athletic, Milwaukee was completely thrown off by Miami’s physicality. The Heat were permitted to play rough in ways that some fans might complain about, but as is usually the case, putting blame on the officiating is in a similar vein as blaming the weather for cancelling your afternoon plans. Sometimes, shit happens. The Bucks didn’t like the treatment they were getting from the referees...and they didn’t do anything about it.

Missing Giannis is at the core of why Game Three went how it did. The Bucks didn’t have any effective counters to Miami’s handsy approach to defense; even Milwaukee’s post bruisers like Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis are more finesse than pure brawn. Maybe Giannis comes back for Game Four and the rest of this series goes the way we thought it should go. Or maybe he still isn’t ready to go (head coach Mike Budenholzer remarked that Giannis’ recovery “isn’t a linear thing”) and Milwaukee will have to figure something out like they did in Game Two. Hopefully, they don’t rely on a historically-high level of three-point shooting to carry them for a second time in this series.

The most frustrating thing, though, and why the word “fleeting” comes to mind, is that this scenario that the Bucks find themselves in speaks to just how narrow the window to compete for a title can become in the blink of an eye. Milwaukee has been here before; two years ago, when Giannis nearly blew out his knee in the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta, these Bucks were faced with postseason adversity in the form of losing their best player. Against the Hawks, they responded by going big, playing tough, and closing out the series strong to punch their ticket for the NBA Finals.

And these Miami Heat are not those Atlanta Hawks. Milwaukee’s current opponent is much more well-suited to play rough and respond to polished strategy with brute force. To get out of this first round – which feels more and more like a struggle to achieve rather than the guarantee we arrogantly assumed a week ago – the Bucks are going to have to beat the Heat at their own game.