The Milwaukee Bucks hope Giannis Antetokounmpo can play in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series against the Miami Heat, but won’t know his status until hours before tip-off.
Tuesday night’s NBA playoff games
- Gm 5: Heat @ Bucks | Sky Sports Arena | 11:30pm
- Gm 3: Lakers @ Rockets | 2am
Both are nightmare scenarios, capable of waking even the most seasoned, gnarled basketball coach in the middle of the night, screaming and shaking.
Which is worse? Losing your superstar player unexpectedly in the heat of a playoff game and having to adapt and improvise on the fly? Or knowing and dreading for 48 hours that you might not have him at all, well aware that your opponents are preparing accordingly?
While Antetokounmpo continued round-the-clock treatment on Monday on his sprained right ankle, coach Mike Budenholzer could hedge on his answer only because he and the team thought Antetokounmpo might not even play in Game 4 against Miami on Sunday night.
From that perspective, Antetokounmpo’s 19 points in 11 minutes before he had to leave in the second quarter was all bonus.
Budenholzer explained that little bit of an asterisk that carried the Bucks through the first nightmare. Antetokounmpo’s availability for Game 5 on Tuesday isn’t expected to be known until the hours or minutes before tip.
“I would say, generally speaking, a player going down in a game [is worse],” the coach said. “The thing that made this one a little bit unique, there was some chance he wasn’t going to play. So there was some thought and preparation put into ‘what if Giannis didn’t play?’ from the tip.
“But if you’re going into a game with a totally healthy player and he is unexpectedly injured, there are things you’ve got to adjust and do on the fly.”
To the Bucks’ credit, they did all those things, strategically and emotionally, winning in overtime 118-115 to stave off elimination by sweep. Multiple players, notably Khris Middleton, picked up the slack left by Antetokounmpo’s departure. They got outscored from the foul line and the three-point arc, yet managed to dominate in the paint without their potent primary trespasser there.
The Bucks swiped or pounced on the basketball when it got loose, got many of their preferred shots, took advantage when the Heat relaxed a bit and survived.
“Did we put ourselves in a hole? Absolutely,” guard Wesley Matthews told reporters on Monday. “Are we gonna be punks about it? Absolutely not.”
Now it’s on to Nightmare No 2: Anticipating an elimination game minus the NBA’s likely repeat Most Valuable Player and its certified Defensive Player of the Year on your side. Against a Miami bunch that has been feistier most of the series, now chapped from letting Game 4 slip away, and no doubt rooting for the Bucks’ possible short-handedness.
“We anticipate him playing, being ready to go, being the player that he is,” Heat veteran Andre Iguodala said. “We have got to be able to adjust with him – and adjust better without him.
“They are not going to come in with a flat game,” Iguodala also said. “They are desperate and they are going to play like it.”
For the record, Antetokounmpo participated in the Bucks’ workout session on Monday morning on the Disney campus. Also for the record, the team did nothing strenuous that a guy in a walking boot couldn’t handle.
“On the court, we literally just walked through a couple of defensive things, a couple offensive things, just kind of stationary in the half-court,” Budenholzer said. “He was able to participate in that, but I think it wasn’t much, so don’t read too much into that.”
Sliding over into that top player spot again for Milwaukee, if Antetokounmpo is out or plays at less than full health, will be Middleton. Besides his vital numbers – 36 points, eight rebounds, eight assists – he kept shooting regardless of his percentage (12-of-28) and made many of the Bucks’ offensive decisions to orchestrate the victory.
Iguodala said: “He has a really strong skill set scoring the ball. Not a particularly quick player but he has a great fast-slow, slow-fast change of speed, which is the hardest to guard. He has got a really good handle and he is very fluid. More than capable three-point shooter. And then gets to the mid-range, which is kind of a lost art in the playoffs. But it is very needed, as we saw.”
Middleton’s team-mates know he is not the ‘Greek Freak’ as far as elite status in the league. Not as overtly competitive, either. Certainly not in the way Antetokounmpo spit out to a few of them “I should have dunked it!” as he lay on the court, cursing and grabbing his ankle.
But Middleton is no distant second in their eyes.
“He is really flourishing,” Matthews said of Middleton. “He is stepping up in a big moment. And not only on the offensive end. This is the most vocal I have ever seen Khris.”
Budenholzer went to a four-guard attack for a while in Sunday’s Game 4. Eric Bledsoe had the ball in his hands more without Antetokounmpo around as primary ball handler. And Brook Lopez got more work in the low post, with less need to open lanes for Giannis’ romps through the paint.
Those tweaks give Miami new things to think about for Game 5. But most of the heavy-duty thought process will stay with Milwaukee, because playing Antetokounmpo even if he says he is ready isn’t an easy decision.
As Budenholzer said: “Sometimes you have to listen to the player, sometimes you have to protect him.”
The Bucks coach said the medical staff will have the most input, tasked with weighing the condition of Antetokounmpo’s sprained ankle now against further injury that might come if he risks playing on it.
“Organizationally we have such a great sports performance staff,” Budenholzer said. “Just a high level of trust that they understand the big picture. They have been a part of all the decisions in the past, and obviously going forward. The trust level with them, the communication between them and Giannis.”
Having Antetokounmpo for Game 5 in a series that might end in five or six games anyway is a bad bargain if it adversely affects the guy Milwaukee hopes to have for the next one or six or 10 seasons.
“Looking at everything, assessing everything together, we’ll continue to make decisions that protect and keep Giannis in a position where he is healthy and has a long, long, healthy career and is still available to us and giving us what he can,” Budenholzer said.
Want to watch even more of the NBA but don’t have Sky Sports? Get the Sky Sports Action and Arena pack, click here.