The Milwaukee Bucks overhauled their roster during the offseason to put more star power around two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Their championship hopes now may depend on how well those other guys can perform without him.
“Giannis is going to do everything he can to be available,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Wednesday. “We’re going to put his health and safety first and together make good decisions.”
Antetokounmpo’s injury looked considerably more serious when he was clutching his knee in obvious pain Tuesday night. But as encouraging as the MRI results are for the Bucks’ long-term ambitions, the injury seriously complicates their hopes of winning this series and reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
The Bucks and Hawks are tied at two games apiece.
“Any time you see your best player go down, it’s not great,” Bucks forward P.J. Tucker said after Game 4. “But it’s an opportunity for somebody else and everybody else to step up. It’s the Eastern Conference finals. There’s no excuses. It doesn’t matter whoever is playing, not playing. They’ve got guys out. Everybody’s hurt. Everybody’s banged up. Everybody has injuries. You have to fight through it and win.”
Milwaukee brought in Jrue Holiday during the offseason to form a trio of All-Stars alongside Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. They added more playoff experience by acquiring Tucker before the All-Star break.
The price the Bucks paid to make those moves reduced Milwaukee’s overall depth. That issue became even more glaring once guard Donte DiVincenzo tore a ligament in his ankle in the first-round series with Miami to knock him out for the remainder of the postseason.
That depth has been tested before.
Milwaukee went 6-5 in the 11 regular-season games Antetokounmpo missed. Now the Bucks likely will have to play without him again amid much higher stakes.
Antetokounmpo is averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the postseason. If he isn’t available, the Bucks will need Middleton and Holiday to become more consistent.
Middleton scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Bucks to a Game 3 victory in Atlanta, but he’s gone 0 for 16 from 3-point range in Milwaukee’s two losses during this series. Holiday shot 23 of 39 in the first two games of this series and 8 of 28 over the last two games.
The Bucks are shooting 30.6% from 3-point range in the playoffs, down from 38.9% in the regular season.
Antetokounmpo’s situation represents a cruel twist of fate for a Bucks team that had been capitalizing on other teams’ injuries.
In the Bucks’ 4-3 second-round series victory over Brooklyn, the Nets didn’t have Kyrie Irving for the last three games or James Harden for most of the first four games. When Atlanta’s Trae Young sat out Game 4 with a bone bruise in his right foot, it appeared the Bucks had gotten another break.
The Bucks instead got blown out Tuesday and now face the likelihood of playing without their biggest star.
“As players, you just look at each other and whoever we got out there, that’s who we’re going with and we’re going to go out and fight,” Tucker said after Game 4. “Like to me, all that other stuff goes out the window and it comes down to be able to go out and give the effort every play, lay it on the line, and go out there and take it because tonight, that’s what Atlanta did. They took it.”
The Bucks won’t get much sympathy from the Hawks, who have their own injury problems.
Young’s status for Game 5 remains uncertain. Clint Capela also is questionable with right eye inflammation after taking an elbow to the face late in Game 4. De’Andre Hunter is out for the remainder of the postseason after undergoing knee surgery. Bogdan Bogdanovic is playing with a sore knee and Cam Reddish just returned from an Achilles injury that knocked him out for four months.
“The preparation is really still the same as far as preparing for them,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “You don’t just prepare for Giannis. They have a lot of other guys over there that are productive and can play and they can go to. We’ll continue to prepare for the Bucks as opposed to just one individual.”