In the few days off last week before a two-game road trip to Cleveland and Detroit when it appeared Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton would return to the Milwaukee Bucks after protracted absences, head coach Mike Budenholzer was asked if it felt like his team was getting a reset at about the halfway point of the season.
He smiled a little. At the time the Bucks were the No. 2 seed in the East (now they are No. 3, a half game behind Philadelphia) but it didn’t quite feel that way. Their Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday had played just five games together.
“I think reset can be inclusive of a lot of different things,” Budenholzer began. “I think a little bit of a body reset, physically there’s a group of guys that have ben playing a lot of minutes, playing a ton, and I think for those guys to get a little bit of a reset, it’s rare that you get those. I think from that sense, yeah, there’s definitely an appreciation for some guys getting a break. Giannis and Khris and how they’ll feel and what they’re going to be able to do, whether it be tomorrow or going forward, you just gotta figure it out day by day. I don’t think there’s a reset as it comes to those guys.”
Middleton and Antetokounmpo would miss one more game, Saturday’s loss in Cleveland, before a rousing 150-point recombobulation Monday night against the hapless Pistons. Middleton played just 15 minutes. Antetokounmpo played 26.
In total, the star trio has missed 61 total games. Joe Ingles missed the first 29 (knee) and Pat Connaughton had missed 15 (calf) to start the year. A handful of others missed games with illness.
The Bucks, quite literally, had never been whole.
For all the numbers one could pin on the Bucks through their first 47 games there is a single digit that matters most: One.
Monday was the first time they had, ostensibly, their top 10 rotation players available (and, go figure, Bobby Portis had a Piston fall into his knee, but he said after the game he should be OK).
“How many points did we score today? 150?” Antetokounmpo asked afterward. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to score 150 every single night, but once we’re at full strength this team is really good. There’ a lot of threats out there. People understand their role, the hierarchy of the team, and as long as we can stay healthy we have a chance and that’s all we can ask for.”
There are 35 games left for the Bucks (30-17), with the Denver Nuggets (33-14) up next, Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum. It’s sizeable number, but the Big Three aren’t going to play that many in a row, by choice or otherwise. The roster may yet be shaken up again by the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
“I think roles will change for sure, minutes will be changed and everything will be realigned,” Portis acknowledged. “But that comes with being on a championship team, comes with sacrifice, comes with sacrificing for the betterment of the team.
“We need those guys anyway so it shouldn’t matter. We have to find our chemistry and camaraderie again, fitting them back into our scheme and things like that. Our playbook will change dramatically for sure, but I think it’s going to be fun for sure just to get our full team. I don’t think we’ve had heavy doses of that during this season of just having our team healthy and everybody in their regular roles that they’ll have for the rest of the season.
“I think it’s going to be fun, but it’ll be highs and lows with it as well but I think that just comes with the regular season, just testing things out, trying new things, seeing who works well with who, what lineups work and just going through it.”
Is it enough to jell to be ready for a deep playoff run that will have up to 28 more games scheduled? They really don’t have a choice.
To be clear, the Bucks haven’t been bad. Continuity and depth have helped them to a 21-17 record since they started the year 9-0 (also without Middleton, Ingles and Connaughton). That’s more wins than six other teams have for the entire season and a winning percentage (55.2%) better than 21 teams heading into Tuesday’s action.
They just haven’t lived up to very heavy weight of expectation. It’s why the idea that Monday symbolized a reset feels right. All season, the leaders on the team have said it’s about getting to their best basketball in March.
Well, that is just about a month and 14 games away. Time hasn’t run out, but it’s shortening.
The big victory Monday was nice first step. Having the starters and top of the bench playing the next week together would feel monumental. It’s been fair to give the team grace to this point, but even that will thin. There may not be time to turn it off and turn it on again.
“We gotta stay healthy. It’s very important,” Antetokounmpo said. “The healthier we are the more chance we have to play our best basketball late into the season. If guys are not available it just makes our job harder.
“The more healthy we can be, the better we can be, the more chance we have to be great. And we showed tonight. Our team is like, packed. There’s no seat to sit on the bench. Some people have to sit on the floor, some people have to stand. We’re packed. Sandro (Mamukelashvili) wasn’t here either today. Just looking down at your teammate like man, we’re good. As long as we’re healthy we have a chance and we have chemistry. We’re going to keep getting better.
“I think we have 35 more games to go to build that chemistry and hopefully we can do so and play good basketball when we need it the most to play good basketball.”
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