MILWAUKEE — Posting the NBA’s best record once again couldn’t help the Milwaukee Bucks win a conference title, let alone a league championship.
The top seed in the playoffs will spend the rest of the post-season wondering why it couldn’t ever regain its pre-hiatus form in the Disney bubble.
Milwaukee was 53-12 when the coronavirus pandemic caused play to shut down for 4 1/2 months. The Bucks went 8-10 after the season resumed in Florida, including a 4-1 loss in a best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Miami Heat.
They never seemed to adapt to playing without fans as well as other teams did.
“At the end of the day, every team went through that,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who missed all of Game 5 and most of Game 4 with a sprained right ankle. “It wasn’t just us. But maybe it affected us a little bit more.”
Questions now turn to the future of Antetokounmpo, who won the MVP last season and is a finalist for the award this year. The 25-year-old forward’s contract is set to expire after the 2020-21 season.
Milwaukee can offer Antetokounmpo a supermax extension that would enable him to receive up to 35% of the salary cap with an 8% escalation each year of the deal.
The supermax was designed to help franchises keep their superstar players by giving them offers other teams couldn’t match, though it hasn’t always worked out that way. For example, Anthony Davis was eligible for a supermax extension with New Orleans last year but instead demanded a trade that eventually landed him with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Antetokounmpo’s postgame comments Tuesday offered Bucks fans at least some cause for encouragement.
“Hopefully we can learn from this and get better as a team and come back and hopefully can build a culture in Milwaukee that for many years we can come out here and compete every single year for a championship,” Antetokounmpo said.
The Bucks have posted the NBA’s best regular-season record in consecutive years, but they’re still seeking their first title since 1971. They haven’t even won a conference championship since 1974.
Last season, the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals by losing four straight to Toronto. This year, the Bucks fell behind 3-0 to Miami and blew a double-digit lead in Game 3 by getting outscored 40-13 in the final period - the biggest fourth-quarter point differential in NBA playoff history.
Milwaukee showed its moxie by winning Game 4 in overtime even after Antetokounmpo got hurt in the second quarter. The Bucks didn’t have enough offence without him in Game 5 and lost 103-94
“It was a hell of a ride,” guard Wesley Matthews said. “You hate to see it end like this, but that’s life. You’ve just got to reflect, get better and get after it again.”
The Bucks made history earlier in the post-season by refusing to take the floor for Game 5 of their first-round series with Orlando as a form of protest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Other teams followed the Bucks’ lead, causing a league-wide postponement of the playoffs.
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer dismissed the notion that the Bucks’ calls for social justice may have distracted them in their playoff push. He praised the team for “being on the right side of history.”
“You’ve got to fight for things you believe in,” Budenholzer said. “We were certainly in the middle of it. It was significant. But it’s just part of life. I would say it could have helped us. It may have helped us. I know it helped us as humans.”
The Bucks ultimately may have just run into a bad matchup.
Milwaukee went 1-2 against Miami and 55-15 against everyone else during the regular season. In Milwaukee’s lone regular-season victory over the Heat, the Bucks needed to rally from 23 points down against a Miami team playing without Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic.
“I think guys learned a lot about themselves and are going to get better,” guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “This ain’t the end.”
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Steve Megargee, The Associated Press