As the Milwaukee Bucks walked off the floor at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday night in the aftermath of a 116-91 blowout win over the Boston Celtics, one that sealed a 4-1 series win in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Kristen Ledlow of TNT asked Giannis Antetokounmpo about something he said following Game 1. The Bucks lost that game, then ripped off four wins in a row to secure a spot in the next round.
The subject of the question was “Bucks basketball,” a phrase Antetokounmpo said was missing following the loss. It’s easy to reflect on failures after a triumph, so the favorite to be named league MVP looked back on what he thought was lacking after the team was punched in the mouth four games ago.
“I think our mindset changed,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think in the first game, we weren’t focused enough, we weren’t ourselves. I think in the next four games, we came out, we came with a different approach, a different mindset, a killer mindset, and we were able to win these four games.”
Game 1 was a bit embarrassing for Milwaukee. After breezing through their first round series against the Detroit Pistons, a sweep in which their average margin of victory was a bit under 24 points per game, the Bucks faced a bit of adversity for the first time all postseason. The Celtics came out, punched them in the mouth, won by 22 points, and some idiot wrote this: “Even if Milwaukee makes up for the apparent dearth of energy that existed on Sunday afternoon, that might not matter if the Boston team we’ve been waiting to see all year shows up three more times this series.”
The thing that, in retrospect, was obvious about Game 1 was that it was more an outlier for the Bucks than anything else. We had 82 games of regular season data that show us who Milwaukee is, data that is available to every other person on earth, and it says that the Bucks were the best team in basketball this season. It’s why the team didn’t fret, kept its head, and chalked the loss up to things like missed shots and a lack of playing hard.
There were some adjustments — they switched more in the ensuing games than they had during the regular season, Nikola Mirotic replaced Sterling Brown in the starting lineup beginning in Game 3, etc. But at a time in the basketball calendar where teams are expected to respond by getting away from has worked all year, Mike Budenholzer, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the gang made it a point to rely on what had worked for them all season above all else.
This is why Milwaukee was able to roll to four straight wins over Boston, including a pair that came on the road, and punch their ticket to the conference finals before any other team. At the end of the day, the Bucks know that their system was the best in basketball this year, and if they stuck to it and just played hard, everything else would work out against a Celtics team that never quite figured out exactly what it was doing in 2018-19.
The sense of urgency that was evident with the squad manifested itself more in how it approached Game 2. Every basketball team loses games, but not every team responds to these losses at this point in the calendar by staying level-headed. Then again, not every team is this year’s Bucks squad.
“It’s just one game,” Khris Middleton said after the team won Game 2. “That’s the thing we told ourselves after Game 1. They punched us in the mouth, they won by 20+ or whatever, but at the end of the day, we only lost one game. Here, it’s the same situation. No matter the points, we won one game, so we have to move onto the next one and prepare for that.”
The Bucks have a system and an identity. They trust both of them completely, and whenever they have faced any sort of adversity this year, they’ve leaned on those two things.
Losses happen, and when they do, there’s no dwelling on them. Wins happen way more frequently, and when they do, you take a moment to smile and then trudge forward, knowing another challenge is on the horizon. All you can do is rely on what you’re good at — smothering defense, shooting the ball without a second thought, having Giannis Antetokounmpo — and know that works. That’s especially the case when you need to win four times in seven games against, say, a Celtics team that had 82 regular season games and four playoff games to figure out who they were and never really figured that out.
It’s a very New England Patriots thing to say, but if you’re a team that does your job and never gets away from that, you’re going to have a leg up on your opponent every single time. The Bucks did that en route to the best record in the NBA, and if all goes right, that mentality will lead to them being in a position to win an NBA championship this year, or in years to come.