MILWAUKEE — The band of thunderstorms that rolled through Milwaukee on Wednesday afternoon were befitting of the city’s mood ahead of a crucial Game 2 for the Bucks. If being down 1-0 to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in their first-round series wasn’t bad enough, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s back was too sore for him to play.
But by the end of the night, a sense of calm had returned inside and outside Fiserv Forum. As the skies quieted, the Bucks turned in one of the most dominant performances we’ve seen from any team this postseason. They tied an NBA playoff record with 25 3-pointers en route to a 138-122 win that evened the series at 1-1.
The team learned Antetokounmpo would not play shortly before tip-off, putting them in an unenviable spot, but one they’ve been in plenty of times before — both this season and in previous playoff runs. They were ready for the situation and ready to send a message.
“Got big fella out, 34, he’s out, there’s eyebrows raised, like ‘Oh man, can the Bucks win?'” Bobby Portis said. “But we’ve been playing a lot of ball without him throughout the year. Just coming in, being ourselves, playing, having fun, letting the ball fly, sharing the basketball, playing defense, being connected. I think the sense of urgency was really high. Can’t go down 0-2, losing both games at home, that wouldn’t have been right at all.”
It would not have been right after the regular season the Bucks put together, in which they won 58 games and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. They did so thanks mainly to Antetokounmpo, who put together another MVP-caliber campaign, but also because they have one of the deepest rosters in the league, and that abundance of veteran talent came in handy in Game 2.
Brook Lopez (25 points) and Jrue Holiday (24 points, five rebounds, 11 assists) stepped up to lead the way, but they were just two of many. The Bucks had seven players in double figures, and six scored at least 15 points, which matched a playoff record. They also had six who hit at least two 3-pointers during their historic shooting performance and, as a whole, assisted on 35 of their 53 field goals.
“It takes the whole team,” Khris Middleton said. “I think you saw that tonight. It wasn’t just one guy that carried us. A lot of people expect me or Jrue to take on all the load that Giannis does, but what he does, we can’t match. We have to do it by committee, and you saw that tonight.”
Special mention must go to one committee member: Pat Connaughton. He received a DNP — Coach’s Decision in Game 1, but came off the bench in Game 2 to hit six 3s on the way to a playoff career-high 22 points, four rebounds, and three assists. During the regular season, he had reached 20 points just once, making this outing that much more impressive.
“He was a difference maker,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There were probably a lot of difference makers for us tonight, but for PC to come in and give us that. The steal and the layup, all the 3s, the hustle plays, the awareness defensively — he’s kind of the ultimate teammate, the ultimate pro, and it showed tonight.”
The Bucks’ depth was displayed in Game 2, as was their experience and trust in one another. The core of this group has been through countless playoff battles together; they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to up the urgency for games like this without losing their identity.
“That’s what it’s about,” Middleton said. “We think we have the best player in the world, but we think we have the best guys around him, the best team. That’s what gives us confidence when one guy goes down. We feel like we still have a chance to compete at the highest level.”
How long the Bucks may be shorthanded remains to be seen. Antetokounmpo is trending in the right direction; he’s done some work on the court and was listed as questionable before Game 2. With another few days off before Game 3 in Miami on Saturday, he may be cleared to make his return.
But even if he doesn’t, that won’t faze the Bucks. They’ve been here before. They’ve weathered these storms.
“I told him this morning, I know you’re gonna want to come back, but if you don’t, just know we got you,” Holiday said. “Our team has the ultimate confidence in each other. We know how Giannis is. He’s going to try to make that Superman effort and come back and play 48 minutes and do what he does, but we can hold down the fort until he comes back.”