Just like that, the Milwaukee Bucks went from being in the perfect position to make their first NBA finals since 1974, putting together a 2-0 series lead against the Toronto Raptors, to being unable to win another game. In some ways, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 100-94 loss in Saturday night’s series-ending Game 6 was their Eastern Conference finals in miniature. The Bucks were in control at the start, extending their lead to 15 points at one point in the second quarter, before the Raptors solved them.
It was in the second half that the Bucks lost their focus, letting Toronto end the third quarter with 10 unanswered points. By the time Toronto tied the game 78-78 in the fourth, it became clear that everything had turned against Milwaukee. The Raptors pulled away with a victory and advanced to their first NBA finals in franchise history, while the Bucks were left with questions about how such a promising season managed to end with four straight losses, and how the franchise can move forward after its latest disappointment.
First off, it’s important to recognize that the Bucks did not just flat out lose the series, as much as the Raptors proved themselves to be the better team. Maybe most importantly, they had the best player in the series. When Toronto made the deal to trade for the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, they were taking a major risk by trading for a player who might only be in town for a single season. It was a move to say that they were going all-in on this season. The Raptors played him sparingly during the regular season with the hope that when the games mattered the most, Leonard would prove to be one of those rare players worth a hefty investment despite being a potential rental.
Well, it’s worked out for them. To hear it from Raptors fans, it might have already fully paid off when Leonard hit the biggest shot in team history to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers. Leonard was averaging 31.4 points per game and his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo was a prime reason that the Raptors were able to limit a player who seemed downright unstoppable for most of the postseason and the entirety of the regular season. Leonard did more then his share in Game 6, closing out the Bucks by scoring scored 27 points and coming up with a ridiculous 17 rebounds.
Let’s also not judge the Milwaukee Bucks’ season solely by its ending. They had the best record in the NBA regular season by going 60-22. Antetokounmpo will likely be named the league MVP, while Mike Budenholzer will probably receive Coach of the Year honors. Heading into Game 3 in Toronto, they had lost just a single game in the postseason, a strange blowout loss to the Boston Celtics to open up the second round. In an Eastern Conference that was wide open following the departure of LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bucks were in perfect position to establish themselves the favorites in the conference moving forward.
If anything though, it was the Bucks’ success to this point that should make things feel that much more agonizing that everything went sideways for Milwaukee so quickly. It must be doubly frustrating because this year’s Eastern Conference finals were essentially the NBA finals for both teams. Nobody was expecting the champions from the East to beat Golden State Warriors in seven games. The winner would have likely been playing with house money and would have bought themselves more than a little benefit of the doubt heading into the upcoming offseason.
Instead, the Bucks are now forced to think about a future which might be more uncertain than it would have had they even just forced a Game 7. For starters, Milwaukee will have to wonder about two of their three most important players: Khris Middleton, who has a player option for next year and will likely opt out, and Malcolm Brogdon, who will be a restricted free agent. On top of that, Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez will be unrestricted free agents. Pessimists might note, that they have a surfeit of motivation in attempting to make deals to bring back as loaded of a team as they possibly could. After all, they have to look towards 2021, when Antetokounmpo can leave in free agency, if they don’t make a deal to lock him up to an extension next summer. The future comes awfully quick in the NBA.
Maybe nobody knows that more than these Bucks. Heading into this season, they were still something of a question mark while Antetokounmpo merely had MVP potential. Despite surpassing all reasonable expectations during the regular season, there were doubters who believed that the collection of talent on the Celtics would eventually win out come the postseason. It wasn’t until they dismantled Boston over five games that Milwaukee had finally established themselves as the favorites from the East. Then, after all that, that designation didn’t even last the Bucks a single series.