Monday was about moving on for the Bucks.
For Milwaukee, that meant getting to where Boston is already, and letting the Celtics and the league know these aren’t the same Bucks we’ve seen for the better part of this century.
This was the first time since 2001, when Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson led the Bucks to the Eastern conference finals, that this franchise advanced in the playoffs. Milwaukee's 127-104 win over Detroit clinched the squad’s first four-game sweep since 1983 when it took down Larry Bird’s Celtics.
Now Mike Budenholzer brings one of the league’s most lethal three-point shooting teams and one of the world’s most majestic unicorns into the second round after a dominating opening series.
The closeout game was a reminder of what makes this team so scary to the rest of the East and a potential threat to Golden State in June. If you didn’t already know, stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo is practically an impossible mission. But if anybody is up for that challenge, it’s Brad Stevens.
With Aron Baynes, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at his disposal, he’s got a cast that is likely going to cause Antetokounmpo more fits than the bevy of Pistons he put into foul trouble Monday night.
It's highly likely the paint won’t be easy to access in the conference semifinals, so Antetokounmpo will have to either finish above defenders and through contact to put the pressure on officials to send him to the foul line. Calls are going to be harder to get the deeper the Bucks get in the postseason, so Antetokounmpo should revel in the 20 free throws he had during his 41-point outing that ended Detroit’s season. He should also make sure he carries over the tricks that worked best to get the whistles in his favor. His 9.5 free-throw attempts per night in the regular season were just as important as his crowd-detonating dunks and booming blocks even though you didn’t see those on most highlight reels.
Giannis can keep the Celtics on edge and rack up some confidence if he can get to the charity stripe and knock down his shots. Whether stopping a run or getting points late in the game, this a key to Milwaukee’s future success.
And when it comes to those specific situations, the shooters will also be major.
Khris Middleton was amazing against Boston last season and if he can perform close to that level this year, the Bucks should feel great about their chances. In addition to the other All-Star on Milwaukee’s roster, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic will also need to play some of their best ball. If Malcolm Brogdon can return at some point in the second round from his injury, the Bucks will be in perfect position. Spacing the floor to give Antetokounmpo maximum room and being reliable enough to trust late so Antetokounmpo doesn’t force a shot just for the sake of being the hero on a given night could be the difference in the series. And when Terry Rozier has the crowd thinking about Drew Bledsoe or Gordon Hayward is looking like he did pre-injury or Kyrie Irving hits a late-game triple, these guys will need to stop the bleeding and supply responses to the opposition’s spurts alongside their MVP-candidate and make sure his burden never gets too big.
With the first round officially in the rearview, the Bucks will naturally see the conference finals coming up on the horizon. But before they can get back to the place they were at in 2001, they need to conquer the demon that ended their 2018 and learn from their recent history.
Homecourt advantage is flipped from the previous meeting, and considering that series went seven games with the home team winning each, that leverage is a pretty big deal for Milwaukee.
After eight first-round departures since their last conference finals trip, early exits now feel like a part of the Bucks’ past. This series will give us a glimpse into their future.