2022 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Milwaukee Bucks show the margin to a title is small

Giannis Antetokounmpo helped the Milwaukee Bucks become a championship team. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Giannis Antetokounmpo helped the Milwaukee Bucks become a championship team. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a tour de force in the NBA. There is no stopping or slowing this seemingly unstoppable player.

Everyone knows it and has to design a defense to stop it. He is an oncoming freight train and the only thing anyone can do is lay themselves down on the tracks and hope to slow him down.

Antetokounmpo was indeed an unstoppable force throughout the playoffs, and even in the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff series against the Boston Celtics. There was nothing even a great Celtics defense could do to stop him.

The path to an NBA championship is often paved by the best players in the NBA. This is where they rise above everyone else — how Stephen Curry willed his Golden State Warriors team to tie the Finals series.

Antetokounmpo did that throughout the playoffs and especially in that second-round series against the Celtics. He had a team that was good enough to reach the NBA Finals and repeat as champions, as flawed as they might have been.

The margin of error to win a championship is incredibly small. And the difference between winning and losing is often something quite random and small.

It is very possible the Milwaukee Bucks would have gotten their rematch with the Miami Heat and bulldozed their way through to the Finals again, continuing their vengeance over their failure in the 2020 Bubble. It is quite possible that Game 7 loss to the Celtics determined the Eastern Conference champion and perhaps the NBA champion.

At the highest levels of the game, the difference between winning a title and losing a title can be extremely narrow.

And the Bucks are quite possibly sitting at home simply because Khris Middleton injured his knee in the first round, missing the entire second-round series with the Celtics. His presence would have given the Bucks another shooter that could have put them over the top in what was a close seven-game series.

Milwaukee certainly could have won that series without Middleton. But the Bucks were playing with one hand tied behind their back.

That is as much a testament to Antetokounmpo’s brilliance.

He averaged 31.7 points per game, 14.2 rebounds per game and 6.8 assists per game in the playoffs. He shot 49.1-percent on a playoff career-high 23.8 field goal attempts per game. His usage rate in the playoffs was 38.5-percent.

It is not that Antetokounmpo was never a high-usage player in the playoffs. But he had to take on such a bigger role without his running mate beside him.

In the series against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo averaged 33.9 points per game, 14.7 rebounds per game and 7.1 assists per game. It was an incredible series that included a 41.5-percent usage rate.

By the end of the series, Antetokounmpo was the driving force for the team in every way. He averaged 28.1 field goal attempts per game. He scored 30 or more points in four of the Bucks’ seven games of that series and 40 or more points in three of those games.

Milwaukee did not lose for lack of trying from Antetokounmpo.

It was not as if Antetokounmpo was wholly alone. Jrue Holiday averaged more than 20 points per game in that series and stepped up at several critical moments — including a huge block to seal Game 5 in what felt like a soul-crushing defeat for the Celtics.

But Milwaukee struggled with its outside shooting throughout the series. The Bucks shot just 27.9-percent from three. Without Middleton to space the floor or provide a different means of attack, the Bucks’ offense started to sputter.

They had to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands exclusively and hope he could propel them to a title.

The Celtics won Game 7 fairly easily, 109-81. They got contributions throughout their roster, most notably from Gary Williams. And their defense finally locked up Antetokounmpo enough.

There is plenty to say about how the Playoffs call upon the “others” to step up and support the stars. Those moments really are the turning points — the star doing his work and then the right players stepping up to fill in the gaps, typically in a way the opponent wants and can live with.

The Bucks could not find that without Middleton on the floor. One of their biggest strengths — their ability to spread the floor around Antetokounmpo — was gone with the loss of Middleton.

Middleton’s ability to shoot and space the floor would have helped unlock the rest of the Bucks’ offense. It may have well tipped the scales of balance.

As the Bucks try to plan their future, they likely think and understand that Middleton’s absence was a big reason why they fell short. It likely will mean the Bucks will not spend this offseason panicking or changing their team dramatically.

They have decisions to make regarding Bobby Portis, especially. And they need to add more shooting where they can. But they know their title window is still open. Wide-open, even.

It is easy to see throughout history and sports how titles turn on the smallest thing like an injury at the wrong time or a path opening up.

The 2009 Magic certainly took advantage of such a twist of fate.

Kevin Garnett’s injury opened their door to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually the NBA Finals, speeding up what was possible for that young team (perhaps to their detriment as they plotted their next moves).

The 1995 Magic may well have won the title if Nick Anderson hit a few free throws — missed shots like that or Vince Carter’s misses in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals turn series just as much. Just as easily as things might have been different if Dwight Howard played in the 2012 Playoffs, giving the Magic won more crack at a title before the Dwight-mare ended.

Little things tip the balance every single year. The sliding doors are endless.

Every title team can point to close calls or breaks that turned their way on the way to a title. The margins are very narrow at the top of the pile.

Currently, the Magic are obviously far away from this point. They are not thinking about winning titles at the moment — beyond long-term goals. But their fortunes and their ability to win will turn on small things — such as the right player falling to them in the draft or an injury at the right or wrong moment.

This is how championships are decided. No one should receive any blame or demerit for taking advantage of these breaks. They are necessary on the road to the title. At the end of the day, you have to win the games.

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The Bucks received a bad break at the wrong time. They were a title-worthy team. But they were not able to get across the finish line this time around. The Bucks simply did not have enough with the conditions they were given when it counted.