The Milwaukee Bucks dropped the first game of the NBA playoffs on Sunday after two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo exited the game with a back contusion.
The Miami Heat won 130-117, taking the early advantage in the best-of-seven series.
Even before Antetokounmpo’s exit, the Bucks looked rusty. The team had a weeklong break between the end of the regular season and Sunday’s game, and their stars hadn’t played in even longer than that after sitting out some of the games that closed the regular season. After losing a 2-point lead over the Heat in the game’s opening minutes, the Bucks never led again.
Stay informed on the latest news
Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.
The team shot just 50 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range, to Miami’s 60 percent from the field and an eye-popping 60 percent from three. Heat star forward Jimmy Butler had 35 points.
It was not the start to the series Bucks fans hoped for, nor the one they expected. Many NBA commentators predicted the series would be a sweep for Milwaukee. The Bucks entered the playoffs as the league’s top-seeded team; Miami was seeded eighth. But Milwaukee relies on the superstar power forward Antetokounmpo as its consistent top scorer and a defensive powerhouse.
Antetokounmpo won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2019 and 2020, and is one of three leading contenders for this season’s award. His absence even for one game dramatically reshapes the team and its chances.
A contusion is a bruise, and Antetokounmpo’s injury may yet turn out not to be serious. In a postgame press conference, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said X-rays of the injury were clear, but the team will monitor the injury.
“We have to wait and see what the doctors say, most importantly what Giannis says,” Budenholzer said. “Certainly we’ve been blessed with him being incredibly resilient and quick to heal, but you’ve just got to take it day by day and see how he’s doing.”
The Bucks’ next playoff game is Wednesday evening, which could give the star time to recover. Antetokounmpo sprained his wrist during regular-season play in February but returned after a week. Budenholzer said the team would be ready regardless.
“Any good team, you have to be able to play without your best player,” Budenholzer said. “There’s a lot of talent in the locker room, a lot of toughness, a lot of competitiveness. So no matter who’s coming out on Wednesday, they’ll be ready.”
For fans, Antetokounmpo’s exit on Sunday was an echo of his 2021 postseason knee injury, which caused him to miss the end of the Eastern Conference Finals that year. Antetokounmpo returned for the NBA Championship Series, which the Bucks won in six games against the Phoenix Suns.
For the Heat, Wisconsin native Tyler Herro left the game in the first half with a broken hand, presumptively ending his season.
Before the game, Bucks beat writer Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said that despite Milwaukee’s status as the favorite, the team was approaching the playoffs with a sense of urgency after having been knocked out of contention by the Boston Celtics last year.
“They’re trying to play — I don’t want to say an underdog role … but a return to a sort of hunter mindset, as opposed to being the hunted,” Owczarski said. “Whether that’s a mental trick or not, it’s one they’re trying to play on themselves.”
A bright spot for the Bucks was the return of sharpshooting forward Khris Middleton, who had been out with a knee injury. Middleton scored 33 points and earned praise from guard Jrue Holiday, who said in a postgame press conference that “when it comes to Bucks basketball, playoffs basketball, Khris is always going to show up.”
“Having him out there leading us, getting us back into the game, bringing that energy — that’s something we’re going to need,” Holiday said.
If the series with the Heat were to go to seven games, it would end on April 30 in Milwaukee. The NBA playoffs end in June.
Trustworthy news, world-class music and Wisconsin stories … made possible by people like you.
Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2024, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.