Following a Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat last night, the Milwaukee Bucks have become just the fifth number one seed in NBA history to get knocked out of the first round of the playoffs, joining the likes of the 2010-2011 Spurs and the 1993-1994 SuperSonics. During the post-game presser, Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked by a reporter, “Do you view this season as a failure?”
Immediately letting out a frustrated exhale, Giannis bites back by saying “You asked me the same question last year” before name dropping Michael Jordan and explaining that Michael Jordan only won 6 rings in 15 seasons, and rhetorically asking if those 9 non-championship seasons were failures. Giannis finished by mentioning the Bucks’ 2021 NBA title win wherein the Bucks washed away a 50 year drought and stated “it was 50 years of failure? No it was not. There was steps to it, and we were able to win one, hopefully we can win another”.
Entering the ‘22-’23 NBA season, the Bucks were tied with the Celtics as the second most likely team to win the NBA championship in betting odds. Throughout the length of the season it seemed more and more likely that a championship would be actualized, especially given that the defending champion Golden State Warriors struggled mightily throughout the season. Coming out on top as the first seed in the wildly competitive Eastern Conference made the Bucks as sure a bet as any to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Entering the first round against a Miami Heat team that itself struggled throughout the season seemed to most like a gimme for the city of Milwaukee.
In a series in which both teams lost players to injury for some or all of the series, the Bucks and Heat quickly became a lot less easy to predict. In game one, we saw Giannis and Tyler Herro exit with injuries; a contest in which the Heat were able to pivot more gracefully and take the victory. The Bucks did so themselves in game 2 without Giannis and tied the series up 1-1. Then Jimmy Butler happened. Already playing well in the series, Butler took over the final three games, being the playoff juggernaut that he tends to be, and leading the Heat to a three game win streak to close out the series. Butler’s series included late game heroics, especially in last night's series-clinching game 5 with a literal last second bucket to tie the game to send it into overtime, capping off a frankly otherworldly individual run. Averaging 37.6 points on an absurd 59.7% shooting in the five games, Jimmy Butler exercised his will on the Bucks, even with Giannis playing the final three games of the series (albeit at less than 100%)
Following the loss, Giannis’s response to the reporter's "failure" question noted the same thing being asked the previous year after they lost in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Semis. As a fiercely competitive player, his frustration is understandable. Nobody wants to be kicked while they’re down, and no athlete wants to feel the way Giannis was surely feeling right after the game.
Giannis made a point to say that there is no failure in sports. The question is, is he right? Is there no such thing as failure in sports? Whether that is true or not depends on perspective and how players and their teams cope with loss. From the perspective of the Bucks franchise, not calling this first round exit a failure makes the defeat slightly more palatable.
From the perspective of the very same person Giannis named, knowing what we know about him, Michael Jordan very likely counted all nine of those seasons without a ring on his finger to be a complete and utter failure. Michael used the pain and heartache of being taken down time and time again by the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in the 1980's to ascend to the throne in the 1990s. For Giannis, he will have to call this defeat whatever will motivate him and his team to not let this happen again. After a historic championship season in '20-'21, we’ve seen the Bucks underperform in the playoffs despite having one of the most talented rosters from end to end in the entire NBA.
Whatever the reason is, injuries, underestimating the Heat, too much pressure, the fact remains the Bucks dropped a series they should have won, in a playoffs they were pegged by many to be the sole survivor of. Whether it’s a failure, disappointment, total collapse, etc, doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is how Giannis and his team come back next season. For many NBA fans, this outcome may say more about Jimmy Butler and the Heat than it does about Giannis and the Bucks. And it's time we give Jimmy his flowers; he might be playing the best basketball of anyone in the playoffs presently.
For now, we as fans will continue to focus on the entertaining and unpredictable NBA playoffs unfolding in front of us that does nor just include this first round upset. Despite injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, the latter stinging especially hard for those who know his history, Jimmy Butler and the Heat move on to an exciting round 2 matchup against the New York Knicks. No, this is not the 1990’s.
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