Giannis Antetokounmpo slightly raised his eyebrows when asked how he is handling entering the NBA playoffs with his Milwaukee Bucks as the favorites to win the championship.
“We’re the favorites to win?” Antetokounmpo asked. “I’m not following media as much.”
Yes, the Bucks are the favorites. They are the top seed in the Eastern Conference and posted the NBA’s best record during the regular season. Antetokounmpo is the frontrunner to repeat as the league’s MVP and also a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Milwaukee’s quest for a title begins Tuesday, with Game 1 of its first-round, best-of-seven series against eighth-seeded Orlando.
“Certainly, there’s very high expectations for our group,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “… It’s just keeping us being aware of who we are and playing the way to put us in a position to be considered one of the better teams. You can’t get ahead. You can’t skip steps.”
The Bucks weren’t exactly their dominant selves during the first part of the NBA’s restart, finishing 3-5 in the seeding games held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando.
Antetokounmpo said their defense, which was the NBA’s best in efficiency (102.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) during the regular season, lacked intensity. Ball movement was not as swift for a Bucks style that requires spacing, pace and “randomness,” as Budenholzer described.
Antetokounmpo also was suspended for the final seeding game for head-butting Washington’s Moe Wagner during Milwaukee’s Aug. 11 win over the Wizards.
Still, this series against the Magic appears to be a major mismatch.
Milwaukee swept the regular-season series 4-0. The Magic also were 3-5 during seeding play and are short-handed.
Promising forward Jonathan Isaac suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Aug. 2. Big man Mo Bamba recently left the “bubble” for a post-coronavirus health evaluation. Starting forward Aaron Gordon (hamstring) is listed as questionable to play in Game 1 per Monday’s injury report, while guard Michael Carter-Williams (foot) is doubtful. Evan Fournier (non-COVID-19 illness) and Terrence Ross (non-COVID-19 medical tests) also missed time in recent days but are expected to play Tuesday.
Orlando coach Steve Clifford said his team must limit turnovers, convert fast-break opportunities and have the rebounding advantage in order “to have a chance” against the Bucks. Creating and making 3-pointers– a Magic weakness during the regular season — also will be important against a Bucks defense that focuses on protecting the rim.
“We are the underdogs,” Fournier said. “It’s just the truth. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight as hard as we can to win and do damage, but we all know that Milwaukee’s a great team.”
The Bucks, meanwhile, have long awaited this playoff return.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe said he feels more motivation than pressure after his team blew a 2-0 lead against eventual champion Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals last season. While revisiting film from that series, Bledsoe said Budenholzer still brings up the “hustle plays” such as grabbing 50/50 balls that the Bucks missed.
Antetokounmpo added he is not focused on accumulating the 16 wins required to complete a championship run. He is focused on the daily task for his team.
“We’ve got to compete,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to play hard. We’ve got to take pride in what we’re doing. Hopefully, we can leave this place with a smile on our face.”
–Field Level Media