Eric Bledsoe has heard the talk.
How he was outplayed by fill-in starter Terry Rozier, who rankled Bledsoe on and off the court, causing him to average just 13.6 points per game on 44% shooting in the Milwaukee Bucks’ seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in 2018.
How a year later he shot a dismal 29.4% in the Bucks’ conference final loss to the Toronto Raptors, who went on to win an NBA title many had projected Milwaukee to claim.
How the pressure is on him this year to step up and help the Bucks win a title. But he’s not feeling it.
“I think pressure’s a big word, especially from where each individual comes from,” Bledsoe said heading into the NBA restart in Florida. “But [I’m] a little bit more motivated to get back to where we was.”
Fairly or not, Bledsoe has become the poster child for Milwaukee’s early exits each of the past two postseasons. But it’s not just Bledsoe. As Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended, his supporting cast has declined when he needed them most, though the reigning MVP isn’t dwelling on that.
“We’re all hard on ourselves, but basketball is not what you did in the past or what you’re gonna do in the future, it’s about what you’re doing right now,” he said.
Right now, the Bucks are down 2-0 in their playoff series against the Miami Heat, a team that had already given them trouble during the regular season — and a franchise that has never lost a series when leading 2-0. The question of whether the Bucks’ supporting cast can give their MVP the help he needs remains the most important one as they attempt to turn this series around. Because if they can’t and they again fall short of a championship — or even a trip to the Finals — the question they’ll be asked again is whether Antetokounmpo’s future will be in Milwaukee.
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KHRIS MIDDLETON HAS been an All-Star each of the past two seasons. This year, he nearly became the fifth player ever to average 20 points per game while shooting 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the line.
But while that stat line put him in the company of players such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, he hasn’t been as consistent in the NBA playoffs. He did average 24.7 points per game in the seven-game loss to the Celtics two years ago, but last year he put up just 16.9 PPG on 41.8% shooting. His 2020 postseason got off to a dreadful start when he put up just 16 total points on 25% shooting in the Bucks’ first two games. Middleton knows those types of performances won’t get it done.
“You have to take a step up as far as your play,” he said. “The level of play goes up. Better competition, guys go harder, it’s win or go home at this point.”
The sheer nature of the playoffs means there’s no opportunity for role players to pad their stats against lottery-bound opponents. But as Bucks reserve guard Kyle Korver explained, the matchup issues that all players face this time of year go beyond that.
“You have to fight and scrap for everything because [the opponent knows] exactly who you are,” Korver said. “We know all of each other’s tendencies, and you develop this like … whether it’s real or not, this personal match with the guys that you’re guarding.
“That stuff is real. This is seven games in a row and there’s no secrets. If we call out the play, they call out the play. They know exactly where we’re gonna go, what we’re trying to accomplish, and it just magnifies as the series goes on.”
Korver speaks from experience. He’s been in the playoffs each of the past 13 seasons and made trips to the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 and 2018. Entering this season, he’d played 135 career playoff games — the exact same number as Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe and starting center Brook Lopez had combined to play in their careers.
Lopez, who made just two playoff appearances with the Brooklyn Nets before joining the Bucks, has earned plaudits for the way he’s reinvented himself in Mike Budenholzer’s system, both as a 3-point shooting floor spacer and as a defender. But in 22 playoff games with Milwaukee, he’s shooting just 34% from 3-point range.
Though this is just his second year with the Bucks, Lopez has already become very aware of the narrative that surrounds the team — and is blocking it out.
“We don’t really pay attention to that stuff or look to media, obviously, in that regard,” Lopez said. “We’re just focused on ourselves and what we can do to help each other out.”
While the Bucks’ players shoulder some of the blame for their postseason shortcomings, some credit also needs to go to their opponents. As Magic coach Steve Clifford explained, forcing these subpar performances from the Bucks’ supporting cast actually starts with an increased defensive focus on Antetokounmpo.
“When they get deep and then you collapse, they’re kicking out to the Lopez 3s, the Middleton 3s,” he said. “They have a lot of weapons, but still, to me, obviously it starts with Giannis and his penetration.”
When Antetokounmpo can get into the lane and open things up, it leads to big performances from his supporting cast.
Over the past two postseasons, Middleton has put up three 30-point games, shooting a combined 63% in those games. Lopez led the Bucks in scoring in their Game 1 win over the Raptors last year, dropping 29 points and making four 3-pointers. When Milwaukee blew out Orlando in Game 2 earlier this year, Pat Connaughton chipped in 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting off the bench.
Even Bledsoe, who has drawn the most criticism from outside the organization, helped the Bucks bounce back from that embarrassing Game 1 loss to the Celtics in the second round a year ago by scoring 21 points on 58.3% shooting in Game 2.
“Bled is a competitor. That’s Bled’s edge,” said Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was part of the Bucks team that lost in the conference finals a year ago. “He’s a great athlete, he’s a great player, but he’s a competitor. He’s gonna compete regardless. He’s hungry on both sides of the ball, so he’s gonna be fine.”
That’s a sentiment the Bucks reiterate often about their entire supporting cast. The trio of Bledsoe, Middleton and Lopez combined for 55 points in Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss to Miami and accounted for four of the team’s seven 3-pointers.
“There’s gonna be times where I’m not gonna play well and Khris is gonna carry the team,” Antetokounmpo said.
“We’re confident in whoever is on the floor and nothing can take that away,” Lopez said.
“As long as we can get those 50-50 balls and give ourselves a chance, I think we’ll be all right,” Bledsoe said.
But when pressed for specifics on exactly how they’re going to do that — beyond “keep doing the things that got them wins in the regular season” — the Bucks admit they don’t have many answers.
“I told him, ‘Shoot the ball until your arms fall off,'” Antetokounmpo after Middleton had gotten off to another slow start in Game 4 against Orlando. “I know that’s not the solution, but that’s something that you’ve got to tell a guy like Khris because it gives him confidence. He knows that we believe in him.”
Belief, though, can only go so far.
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AS FAR AS the Bucks are concerned, the task in front of them is simple.
“Honestly, we lost in the Eastern Conference finals,” Bledsoe said. “We’re trying to get back to that point and take it a game at a time.”
If they can get past the Heat to get back to that point, either the Raptors or Celtics — the two teams that ended Milwaukee’s season the past two years — will be waiting.
A loss to any of those teams would mean not only a disappointing end to a season that has taken on so much meaning, but it would also lead to another offseason of questions about Antetokounmpo’s future in Milwaukee. The MVP will be eligible to sign a five-year supermax extension this offseason that, depending on the NBA’s future financials, could pay him more than $253 million. If Antetokounmpo passes on signing the extension, he’d be a free agent following the 2020-21 season.
All season, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have avoided questions about his future. And while they’re as aware of all the possibilities as everyone else, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks teammates aren’t looking at this postseason as a “keep Giannis in Milwaukee” mission.
“Honestly, our motivation comes from within,” reserve guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “I think these guys on this team, we do a great job of not paying attention to the outside noise. I think we do a great job of focusing on each other and giving our energy to each other so there’s nothing different we have to do down here than we’ve done all season long.”
Right now, for Antetokounmpo, supporting his teammates remains as important as getting support from them.
“We’re gonna help one another,” he said, “because at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win.”