Disaster always feels like it’s around the corner from the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that loves dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight in elimination games.
Peril one minute, prosperity the next.
Seventh heaven, seventh hell.
It feels surer than ever that given the evidence and health of the participants, the Bucks are the better and deeper team compared to the Brooklyn Nets. They’ll enter Saturday night’s Game 7 in Brooklyn far removed from the club that trailed by nearly 50 in Game 2, but close enough to smell a 16-point lead disintegrate due to the brilliance of Kevin Durant in Game 5.
Durant’s extraordinary ability offsets what the Nets lack in physical grit, sweat equity and star power, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s relentlessness can even the scales or even push the Bucks over top, considering the circumstances.
It’s Antetokounmpo’s moment to seize, and just getting to a Game 7 isn’t going to cut it. Winning three of the last four games isn’t enough with a wounded Nets team on the other side, not when he has his name etched on the last two MVP trophies before this season.
“As I've said all year long, we’re built for this moment, simple as that,” Antetokounmpo said after scoring 30 points with 17 rebounds in the Bucks’ 104-89 Game 6 win. “And nobody says [it’s] going to be easy. Might be hard, but we are capable of doing [it].”
He energized Fiserv Forum and his teammates by magnetizing himself to the paint and straying from those groan-inducing perimeter shots. It wasn’t intentional when his forearm caught Jeff Green flush in the jaw in the second half, but his intent was to play with force and physicality while leaving Khris Middleton to handle the necessary shooting.
Both delivered, becoming the first set of teammates to score 30 points with 10 rebounds since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant pulled off the feat in what feels like eons ago.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been teammates for eight years, arriving in Milwaukee in 2013. From Larry Drew to Jason Kidd, from watching Jabari Parker be crowned as the golden child to Antetokounmpo’s emergence, from absorbing 54-point beatdowns in their first playoff run to the heartbreak of the last two years, from Mike Budenholzer being hailed to those who’ll raise hell if he’s brought back following another heartbreak.
Middleton has turned himself from the steal of the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade into a bonafide All-Star, a legit first option when games get tight. While he falls behind Antetokounmpo and Budenholzer on the accountability tree, he’s been just as vested and, at times, more dependable than hardly anyone on this roster.
“I know him. It’s the most I’ve played together with a teammate,” Antetokounmpo said. “One thing that I've noticed with him is once he starts being vocal and talking to everybody and telling them where to go and his mind is in the game, you know he's extremely locked in.”
Middleton was effective when the other snipers were shooting blanks, going 5-of-8 from three and drawing fouls on others, getting to the line 12 times to score 38. Without Middleton, they looked like the same old Bucks — a squad ready to bow out after a devastating loss in Game 5, with Jrue Holiday going an uncharacteristic 1-of-10 from three, Pat Connaughton missing all five of his 3-point attempts and P.J. Tucker missing four of his five.
It’s why, despite the progress the Bucks have made in this series just over the past week, they can’t be fully trusted to claim a Game 7 on the road. It’s why, even though it feels like these Bucks are the better team, there’s no assurance or even confidence they’ll win on Saturday.
It would almost be unfair of Antetokounmpo to expect another performance like that from Middleton, even though he’s more than capable. Everyone had a front-row seat to Durant’s show Tuesday night, and while he didn’t quite muster the magic in Game 6, he did more than enough to prove he’s liable to walk the Bucks down in any building.
It’s a series that has very little rhythm and still plenty of drama, and no true connective tissue.
“This series is a little bit unique, you know, injuries are always a part of the series, a part of the playoffs,” Budenholzer said. “It's been, for them, a little bit of a revolving team, a different team kind of, from night to night.”
Budenholzer's team looks the same, no Kyrie Irving leaving or James Harden returning, but the prince-to-pauper act happens in-game — periods of terrible decision-making and a lack of seeing what’s in front of them, such as a freeway to the paint that can be so good to them.
There’s no Charles Oakley, no Ben Wallace waiting in the paint. Not even a Dwight Howard or Joel Embiid — which could be waiting for them next round if Philly gets its act together. At some point, Antetokounmpo realized that and dipped his shoulder into whomever was wearing a Nets jersey in front of him, eschewing his dreams of being Durant.
The coach opposing Antetokounmpo is an MVP with a dubious distinction, as Steve Nash is the only multi-time winner of the award without an appearance in the NBA Finals.
Oh, wait, that’s Antetokounmpo’s music, too.
If the Bucks lose, even if they’re valiant in defeat somehow, it’ll likely cost Budenholzer his job as the rumors of free-agent coaches heated up hours before Game 6’s tipoff.
But Antetokounmpo will have his MVPs litigated in the light of new evidence. The prospect of Kawhi Leonard walking them down in four straight games and Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat dumping them in five last summer won’t look anomalous in the face of history if Durant does the same thing in Game 7.
Everything changes in the NBA, quicker than ever, so there’s no assumption he can keep getting close without tangible results, especially with no team’s health guaranteed for the present or future.
Durant is the best player on the planet but he doesn’t have Khris Middleton. Even though Harden is there in body and spirit, he’s a shell. Antetokounmpo has said he would guard Durant if it came to it, but hasn’t demanded the matchup — as if he should do so.
Durant has shown he can own the night in every minute necessary, while Antetounmpo has demonstrated his ability to acknowledge Durant’s greatness and pick his team off the mat following a dizzying combination.
But the moment calls for more, the pressure is on the road team in this Game 7, on the perceived underdogs.
Seventh heaven, or all hell breaking loose.
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