With a new champion crowned, a look back at the failed repeat attempt by the previous titleholder
On the surface the 2021–22 Milwaukee Bucks and yours truly have but very little in common.
Dig a little deeper…and that remains true.
But if you really do some in-depth research on the two of us…
(Actually don’t, the hilariously stark contrast only leaves me increasingly depressed.)
That said, we do share at least two core elements:
- A base of operations in the lovely city of Milwaukee.
- Our own unceremonious ‘exits’ from the 2022 NBA Playoffs — the Bucks’ coming at the hands of a decisive Game 7 Eastern Conference Semi-Final loss in Boston while I found myself at home getting absolutely Molly-whopped by an unforeseen blitzkrieg of a late spring pollen count.
The latter of that pair being the far more relevant factoid to the compilation of words/punction you’re about to scroll through in the ensuing minutes (the first half of the second part anyway, the allergy situation that relegated me to a walking corpse for the better part of a week is somewhat less material to the basketball conversation), this semi-brief retrospective aims to examine a couple of the key components that went into the Bucks falling short of their back-to-back title bid — as well as what they might learn from the two teams who ultimately duked it out in the Finals.
(Shocker) Health matters
The playoff story of the 2021–22 Milwaukee Bucks will probably never go untold without early mention of the injury that ultimately sidelined a member of its star trio for the last 10 games of the team’s postseason run.
Khris Middleton’s first-round MCL sprain not only threw a big, fat ugly wrench in the middle of Milwaukee’s repeat hopes at the time, but in hindsight couldn’t have come at a worse moment given his subsequent absence would span the entirety of his team’s greatest challenge in the Eastern Conference — the Boston Celtics.
Based on its performance not just against the Bucks but through the totality of its impressive run to the Finals, Boston was nothing short of a championship-worthy foe.
And here’s a little secret…you don’t typically beat a team like that four-out-of-seven times going entirely without the services of one of your own star players.
A look back at every eventual NBA champion since the turn of the millennium would seem to support said notion as all 23 squads to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy had stars who — guess what — were on the floor when the competitive stakes were at their highest.
This isn’t to speak to the relative health of every said star during their respective postseason runs (I’m sure plenty of guys were banged up to varying degrees), but they were all healthy enough to play significant minutes for their teams. That’s what it takes to win a championship in this sport.
Now a healthy Middleton hardly would’ve guaranteed another title for Milwaukee. But looking back, it was miraculous enough that the Bucks were able to take three games from an excellent Boston team despite his absence.
Even had they squeaked by the Celtics, in the bigger picture there was probably no way a second consecutive title was coming back to the ‘Cream City’ without its three-time All Star both available and playing like some semblance of his usual self.
Sorry, but that’s just how this sport works.
It was apparent as Boston closed out the series with decisive Game 6 and 7 victories that Milwaukee was sorely lacking both another high-level creator on offense and a capable, switchable wing on defense — two descriptions Middleton just so happens to fit to a tee.
Why are they so critical? Well, because they simultaneously help to both unlock stingy, top tier opposing defenses as well as establish/maintain a similarly rugged defensive outfit of one’s own.
And if you’re not picking up on the hint at our next topic…
Yeah, defense still matters
Your 2021–22 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors finished the 82-game regular season first in the league in Defensive Rating.
Their Finals opponent, the Boston Celtics? They finished second.
Meanwhile, fellow Conference Finalists Dallas (sixth) and Miami (fifth) weren’t too shabby either.
Take it back one round further and you’ll find Phoenix (third), Memphis (fourth), Philadelphia (12th) and…Milwaukee (14th).
Something stands out, right?
The last teams standing in the postseason all just so happened to have established upper echelon defensive identities over the course of 82 games…sans two of them.
And of that pair only one (Milwaukee) was looked at by most knowledgeable observers as a legitimate title threat.
I mentioned on countless occasions during the regular season that various lineup shuffles — most especially Brook Lopez’ near 70-game back surgery induced absence — were a legitimate reason for Milwaukee’s average defensive performance as compared to its elite-level standing in years past.
Of course, plenty of the teams ahead of them dealt with upheaval of their own that could’ve hindered their efforts on that end of the floor.
The truth is all year long the Bucks had slipped defensively from the standard we’d grown accustomed to witnessing — even without their supremely valuable big man.
To say it ultimately ‘caught up with them’ might be a stretch, especially given all of this exists within the context of the aforementioned loss of Middleton. That said, the season-long defensive performance was a notable outlier and one worth shoring up come 2022–23 as the team seeks to regain its championship form.
If I’m Mike Budenholzer that’s the message I’m impressing upon my players throughout the offseason. The best teams in the league established strong defensive habits early and often a year ago. Why not make that one of our main objectives as we sit less than four months out until next season tips off?
The last category here I’ve earmarked specifically for the recently concluded six-game series that saw Golden State top Boston for the sport’s ultimate prize.
Regarding the Celtics — that’s the team that just knocked you out of the playoffs, Milwaukee. It’s a core group that figures to return mostly intact, and one with room to ascend as its young superstar (Jason Tatum) continues to grow and evolve.
You know the hellacious brand of defense they bring to the table, and that having now beaten you no sort of fear factor or apprehension will exist in future meetings — whether you’ve got Middleton in the lineup or not. Boston is going to believe it’s the better team, and it’ll be on the Bucks to up their game to meet the appreciable challenge the Celtics present.
Meanwhile, the win by the Warriors sends a couple of different messages to their championship predecessor.
For starters, a playoff injury (or two) that derails one hopeful championship run doesn’t preclude you from getting back to the mountaintop yet again.
Just three years ago Golden State was on the precipice of a historic three-peat before things all came tumbling down with season-ending injuries in the Finals to both Kevin Durant (who’d just returned from an earlier playoff injury) and Klay Thompson.
Durant’s subsequent departure to Brooklyn, plus another serious injury for Thompson — not to mention lesser stints on the sideline for Stephen Curry and Draymond Green — would essentially amount to a pair of lost seasons for what had been the envied franchise of the NBA.
Enter 2021–22 and with Thompson finally making his return to the floor Golden State was able to ultimately regain its mojo thanks to a supporting cast — some old, some new — that assisted its now slightly more grizzled leading trio, all of whom are now north of 31 years old (Curry, the star of stars, is 33).
The younger, trendier Celtics gave them a test, no doubt, but the Warriors showed they could still summon more than enough firepower (mixed with a bit of guile) to smack down Boston when the moment arrived.
Now Milwaukee isn’t facing the same injury challenge as did Golden State — Middleton is seemingly back to full-strength already and should be fine for next season — nor had it reached the prior dynastic stature that those Warriors justifiably held on the back of three championships in four years.
But Middleton (30) and Jrue Holiday (31) aren’t exactly ‘young’ by NBA standards. Meanwhile, fellow foundational piece Lopez is 33.
Point being, Golden State demonstrated that there’s still very much time left for a more ‘veteran’ core to make yet another championship run — not that these Bucks necessarily need the inspiration.
And of course, it all revolves around one Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, at age 27 seems to only be getting better and better each season he returns to the floor — his skills ever-evolving to match the preternatural physical gifts with which he continues to overwhelm most opponents on a nightly basis.
Again, far from being a one-to-one comparison, I think the Warriors are merely illustrative — if only to a minor degree — that the Bucks have every right to believe that they themselves can return with a similar vengeance come the 2023 playoffs.
We’ll have to see how the rest of the offseason plays out — including the NBA Draft tomorrow night in which Milwaukee holds the 24th overall selection — but despite an ending to last season that undoubtedly fell short of their ultimate aspirations it won’t be too long until it’s time to make a brand new run at a brand new championship.
For now, though, reminiscing over what might have been is about all they can do.