Milwaukee Bucks: Fighting for playoff lives without Giannis Antetokounmpo

Jun 29, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Jun 29, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports) /

It’s certainly not the worst nightmare that Milwaukee Bucks fans envisioned upon seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo go down with what looked to be a gruesome injury midway through their Game 4 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks got as good of news as they could have prepared for when it was revealed that Antetokounmpo didn’t suffer any structural damage after hyperextending his left knee, though a return to action is unclear.

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Still, it’s not exactly the rosy backdrop the Bucks have behind them as they still have business at hand as their series with the Hawks is shifting back to Milwaukee for Game 5 and with the series tied at 2-2.

Despite the Bucks listing Antetokounmpo as doubtful for Game 5 and encouraging comments from Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer Wednesday afternoon, it’s very hard to imagine seeing the two-time MVP returning to action in what’s left of this series.

Again, Budenholzer didn’t tip his hand as to whether we’d see Antetokounmpo back this series or over the Bucks’ playoff run in general when meeting with the media yesterday. Per the Associated Press:

"“We’ll just take it day by day and see how he’s doing,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said."

The Milwaukee Bucks will have to forge on without a healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo

Just as they had to last year when closing out their playoff run down in the bubble, the Bucks will be without Antetokounmpo. This time, though, the Bucks are not only fighting for their playoff lives, but are two wins away from booking their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1974.

There is still plenty for the Bucks to play for obviously, but they’ll have to reach the NBA Finals without the very player who makes their championship ambitions possible.

This isn’t exactly uncharted territory and the Bucks are joining the long line of playoff teams and contenders that have had their leading stars go down with injuries throughout this postseason. Atlanta should know very well as they were without star guard Trae Young for their Game 4 win Tuesday night and the bone bruise in his ankle may keep him out of the rest of this series as well.

The phrase ‘last man standing’ is certainly being taken to the extreme when it comes to this year’s title race.

For Milwaukee to extend their season beyond this series, they have to quickly adjust and cater to the players who are healthy while dealing with a void as big as Antetokounmpo is. There are certainly ways for the Bucks to lean more into their high-usage perimeter players such as Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, which we will certainly be in play.  The same goes for whether they will lean more into Brook Lopez and his ability to play out of the post more to junk up possessions.

Defensively, it’s much harder to imagine how the Bucks will address Antetokounmpo’s absence. As the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year, there just isn’t a player on the Bucks roster that does precisely what Antetokounmpo does so well, both on and off the ball. Though, the Bucks aren’t short on talented and impactful players on that side of the ball.

The fact that the Bucks have had less than 48 hours to grasp these seismic changes and hope for the best regarding Antetokounmpo’s injury have only added to the stakes of now going into a pivotal Game 5. But just as Holiday spoke about after the Bucks’ Game 4 loss, this gives players a chance to step up in the face of unlikely circumstances:

"“Guys get a chance to step up,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said after Game 4. “Guys get a chance to make big plays and on the biggest stage. I feel like us playing without him has given us some rhythm and just knowing what it’s like, making some adjustment that will be made. But at the end of the day, we’d rather play with him.”"

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When the Bucks envisioned making a run towards the NBA Finals, they did so with Antetokounmpo leading the way. They’re still two wins away from booking that long-awaited trip, but doing so will be much harder without their superstar on the floor. It’s time to see what the Giannis-less Bucks are made of.