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Tom Oates: Bucks have a lot to prove in NBA playoffs

April 14, 2019

As they say in the NBA, the numbers are there for the Milwaukee Bucks, who are about to begin what many anticipate will be their longest playoff run in almost 20 years.

At 60-22, the Bucks have the best record in the NBA. Teams with the league’s best record have won half of the 40 titles since 1979.

Milwaukee became the eighth team in NBA history with 45 or more double-digit victories in a season. The previous seven won the title.

The Bucks’ season scoring margin of 8.9 points per game ranked 22nd all-time in the NBA. Of the 21 teams that were better, 14 won the title.

Milwaukee’s defensive efficiency rating was first and its offensive rating was fourth in the NBA, giving it by far the best net rating.

The Bucks won the season series with every team in the Eastern Conference, including a 20-6 record against the other seven playoff teams.

Milwaukee has the NBA’s best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and one of its most respected Xs-and-Os coaches in Mike Budenholzer.

It has a bench that, when everyone is healthy, goes eight deep with capable role players, a necessity for the playoff grind.

So what will it all mean when the Bucks face off with the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night at Fiserv Forum in Game 1 of their best-of-seven, first-round series?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The regular-season coming-out party was a blast, but the Bucks still have a ton of work to do to satisfy a fan base overrun with expectations. The real NBA season doesn’t start until the playoffs and the Bucks have yet to prove they can win when everyone is trying.

As outstanding as their out-of-the-blue regular season was, the Bucks need to adopt the mindset that they’ve done nothing yet. Indeed, for a franchise that is 0-for-8 in playoff series since 2001, the regular season only served to ramp up the pressure now that the postseason is here. A heightened sense of urgency is the best way to handle that pressure.

“The playoffs bring pressure,” Budenholzer told reporters Friday. “Now is the time when you’ve got to execute defensively and offensively. There’s no, ‘two weeks from now we need to get better,’ or ‘a month from now.’ Every team feels that pressure, the sense of the playoffs.”

The Bucks’ first 82 games showed they have the talent, coaching, schemes, team-first attitude and home-court advantage to be considered the favorite — though not by much — to win the Eastern Conference title and reach the NBA Finals.

Still, there is a perception out there in NBA land that the Bucks could be a regular-season monster that doesn’t have the star power to go deep in the playoffs. Most teams step up their level of play during the postseason. If a team doesn’t match that improvement, it doesn’t last long.

Some are comparing the Bucks to Budenholzer’s 2014-15 Atlanta team, which won a conference-best 60 games and two playoff series before it was swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and Cleveland in the conference finals. But the presence of Antetokounmpo alone makes these Bucks different from those Hawks and the likely NBA MVP is highly motivated after the team’s first-round playoff failures the past two years. Besides, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez have shown this season they can elevate their games, too.

Still, the perception that the Bucks are overachievers who haven’t proven anything in the playoffs will go away only if they make it go away. Fortunately, the Bucks appear to understand they can’t be satisfied at this stage.

“They’ve got a point,” Bledsoe said of the critics. “We got put out in the first round last year. We still have stuff to prove. We can’t get caught up in that. We know what we have to do as a team, so we’ve got to take care of business.”

The biggest deterrent for the Bucks might be injuries. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon, out for a month with a plantar fascia tear, won’t return until some point in the second-round playoff series, assuming there is one. Nikola Mirotic (broken thumb) could be back tonight and Tony Snell (ankle) is almost ready. Pau Gasol (ankle) might be two weeks away.

The Bucks have weathered the late-season injury storm while also resting up their stars, in part because they are so deep. Still, getting Mirotic and Snell back will be a huge boost.

Another potential problem for the Bucks is the suddenly competitive East. The Cavaliers dominated the conference for years, but they are nothing without James and now Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all have the potential to advance to the NBA Finals. Milwaukee is 4-0 against Detroit this season and the availability of Pistons forward Blake Griffin (knee) is day-to-day, but a potentially difficult second-round matchup with the talented Celtics looms for the Bucks, who were eliminated by Boston in seven games last season.

One thing that shouldn’t be a problem is the Bucks’ dismal playoff record. Most of that is ancient history and, besides, this is the first time since 2001 they will have home-court advantage in the first round, much less the rest of the way.

The Bucks were the NBA’s most consistent team this season and have the numbers to prove it. If they can find just one more gear, a date with Golden State in the NBA Finals could be in their future.