LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Everything was simpler in November and December, back when the Milwaukee Bucks were rolling through the regular season and chasing a championship and no one knew anything about the coronavirus. Giannis Antetokounmpo had somehow improved his game, and the future was rife with possibility. When the Bucks reconvened here at Walt Disney World for the N.B.A.’s restart in July, they were not whole. Two players did not make the trip after testing positive for the coronavirus — Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton eventually joined the team — but it seemed to foreshadow the challenges that loomed. The challenge of reassembling the unusual qualities that had made the Bucks such a special team before the season was suspended. The challenge of generating energy in a spectator-free bubble. The challenge of unearthing their chemistry after a four-and-a-half-month hiatus. And, of course, the challenge of shining a spotlight on social justice issues as the world watched. The basketball part of the equation never came together for the top-seeded Bucks, who were eliminated from the playoffs after losing to the Miami Heat on Tuesday night in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Antetokounmpo, favored to win his second consecutive N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award, sat out the Bucks’ 103-94 loss with a sprained ankle, relegated to the role of cheerleader as his teammates pushed on without him. Antetokounmpo had hoped to be healthy enough to play in Game 6.
“If it’s up to me, I play with one leg,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we have people with the team that sometimes have a bigger say than you and have to protect you.” One of those people, Coach Mike Budenholzer, helped make that decision. It was also Budenholzer, along with team executives in the front office, who supported the players last month when they chose to sit out a first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic, a move they described as a boycott after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in Kenosha Wis., about 40 miles south of Milwaukee. Similar protests spread across multiple sports leagues. On Tuesday, Budenholzer choked back tears as he tried to reconcile the twin threads of the Bucks’ experience in the bubble. There was the obvious disappointment of his team’s early exit, especially given the expectations of a deep run. But those feelings were counterbalanced by the protest and the platform that his players seized. “Our team,” Budenholzer said, “was on the right side of history.” Nothing about the restart was easy for the Bucks, who were 3-5 in eight seeding games ahead of their series against Orlando. And then something much more significant happened. After Blake was repeatedly shot in the back by a white officer, George Hill, a point guard and one of the team’s veteran leaders, expressed regret about having decided to play at all in the bubble. “We shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest,” he said at a news conference. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
He was referring to issues like systemic racism and police brutality, issues that the Bucks sought to highlight by sitting out their game against the Magic. The league wound up postponing its schedule for three days, and there was some doubt about whether the postseason would even resume. But the players opted to stay, as N.B.A. team owners pledged to try to use some arenas across the league as voting sites in November. The Bucks soon closed out their first-round series before meeting the Heat — a formidable opponent that ran out to a 3-1 lead. After spraining his ankle in Game 3, Antetokounmpo aggravated the injury early in Game 4. Without him, his teammates plowed to a 118-115 overtime win to extend the series to a fifth game. But it was a temporary reprieve for a tired (and injured) team, one that had also committed itself to addressing problems that the players felt were of greater importance. “Obviously, it’s hard to balance those two,” Antetokounmpo said, adding: “We chose as a team to do both. Is it harder to do both? Yes, it’s harder to do both. But that’s what we chose as a team, to stand up for something that’s bigger than basketball, to stand up for something that we believe, and at the same time play basketball. But it’s not easy.” As for his own future, Antetokounmpo said he was already looking ahead to next season — yes, with the Bucks. “We can learn from this and get better as a team,” he said, “and come back and hopefully build a culture in Milwaukee that, for many years, we can come out here and compete every single year for a championship.”
Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 forward whom Milwaukee drafted in 2013, is eligible to sign a contract extension this off-season. But if he declines to do so, he could become an unrestricted free agent after next season. The Bucks need to sign him, or they risk losing him. The entire situation is already producing agita among basketball fans in Wisconsin. For now, Antetokounmpo appears committed to the Bucks. (He told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night that he would not request a trade if he does not finalize an extension, saying he wanted to “get right back at it next season.”) But his contract situation will remain a source of intrigue, and the Bucks will need to find ways to improve his supporting cast. Even so, the Bucks left an imprint on this odd, challenging season — not in the way that many would have predicted at the start of the year, with a championship parade along the shores of Lake Michigan, but in a meaningful way that went beyond the game and a season that ended too soon.