How a blockbuster trade and two coaching changes delivered another first-round exit in Milwaukee

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO sat at his locker inside Bankers Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, his head down, with one hand on his phone and the other on his forehead. As he sat in silence, wearing a magenta sweatsuit, the rest of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates got dressed around him, and the conversation in the room reduced to murmurs.

Earlier that morning, Antetokounmpo went through a workout to rehab his strained calf, hours before Game 4 of a first-round series he would never appear in. The two-time MVP was limited to cheering on the rest of his teammates from the sidelines. But his progress after the workout gave his coach Doc Rivers the belief that Antetokounmpo could potentially return to face the Indiana Pacers.

What was left unsaid was how long the Bucks would have to extend the series for that to happen. Antetokounmpo was counting on his teammates to win several games, a task made more difficult when his co-star, Damian Lillard, was sidelined by an Achilles injury in Game 3.

Even from the sidelines, Antetokounmpo tried to will the Bucks to victory.

During a timeout with 7:04 remaining in the first quarter, Antetokounmpo was the first to speak to the team in the huddle, becoming animated as he addressed Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley before walking over to the scorer’s table and whispering to Brook Lopez as he waited to check-in.

Even without their two stars, the Bucks were tied after the first quarter, despite Bobby Portis being ejected over a scuffle with Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard. Still, the Bucks did not have enough to overcome missing three of their best players and dropped Game 4, putting them behind 3-1 in the series.

The Bucks were able to extend the series to six games, with an inspired victory in Game 5, but they still fell short without their best player and were eliminated in Game 6.

Antetokounmpo was in a similar situation last season when an injury forced him out of two games in the 2023 NBA playoffs. He came back in that first-round series, but the Bucks still lost to the lower-seeded Miami Heat in five games, a loss that caused a systemic shift in the organization over the past 12 months.

The Bucks fired their championship coach to bring in a new voice for the locker room, acquired another all-time great superstar to pair with Antetokounmpo, fired the new coach when he failed to reach the locker room, and brought in a famous, veteran coach mid-season hoping he would better connect with their stars and save a year of their championship window.

But ultimately, the Bucks fell short in the same spot, in the first round to a lower seed, facing questions about where they go from here.

ON HIS WAY to the Kia Center in downtown Orlando for the regular season finale on April 14, Lillard stopped for a moment to reflect.

He thought back to six months earlier, trying to summon his feelings before the first game of the regular season: it felt more like a road game entering the arena in Milwaukee that day, yet he still felt the excitement of playing for a team with legit championship aspirations.

“I’m here ultimately for this opportunity,” Lillard said after the Bucks lost to the Magic 113-88. “You have all these ups and downs, the season wares on you physically, emotionally, sometimes we forget how precious the situation we’re in is.”

Lillard knew the Bucks would be without Antetokounmpo for at least the start of the postseason, but he had confidence in his team’s ability to grow together before Antetokounmpo returned to the lineup. But during the second quarter against the Magic, Lillard said he began feeling discomfort in his right Achilles. Rivers tried to take him out of the game, but with the Bucks fighting for playoff seedings, Lillard toughed it out, playing 30 minutes.

He rested for the next few days and started the playoffs feeling refreshed. He stormed out to 35 points in his first half of playoff basketball in a Bucks uniform. But in Game 3, Lillard re-agitated the Achilles injury and missed the next two games. He returned in Game 6, but could not carry the Bucks to a series comeback.

The trade that brought Lillard to Milwaukee sent shockwaves throughout the NBA — he and Antetokounmpo were billed as a dream pick-and-roll combo. Yet, almost immediately, the unintended consequences of that trade began to backfire on Milwaukee.

The Bucks traded their All-Star guard Jrue Holiday to Portland to acquire Lillard but the Blazers were focused on a youth movement and re-directed Holiday to the Boston Celtics, the team behind Milwaukee with the most wins in the NBA the past five regular seasons (Bucks 260, Celtics 256).

Holiday fit seamlessly with the Celtics’ core and Boston had the best record in the NBA this regular season at 64-18.

Meanwhile, Lillard needed time to adjust to Milwaukee after 11 seasons in Portland. He acknowledged it was a challenge off the court, being far from his friends and family, especially his three children.

“I moved my life and moved my career and did all of these things that kind of made my life a little bit harder away from basketball for this opportunity,” Lillard said after Game 1 of the series. “Coming into it, in my mind and in my heart, I was like I can’t come this far without at least trying to put everything into it and put my best foot forward.”

And there was an adjustment on the court. Lillard and Antetokounmpo’s chemistry didn’t come as smoothly as predicted. Lillard always knew it would take time for the two stars to mesh on the court after spending their careers playing in offenses that revolve around them — but that didn’t make the process any easier.

It was an up-and-down season for Lillard, who averaged 24.3 points per game on 42% shooting (35.4% from 3), down from his final year in Portland, but to be expected playing alongside Antetokounmpo, with his lowest usage rate (27.4%) since 2014-15. He did play 73 games, his most since the 2018-19 season and he ranked third in the league in clutch scoring, behind Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan.

Yet, as his first season in Milwaukee came to a close, Lillard entered the playoffs focused on the main reason he asked out of Portland in the first place: a shot at a championship. That’s why he cleared the air and reiterated that while Milwaukee may not have been his initial choice, he was excited to compete for a title.

“I saw somebody say, ‘Dame’s not happy in Milwaukee’ or something like that,” Lillard said the week before the playoffs. “I know the truth.

“I love the situation that I’m in.”

THE BUCKS TRIED to save their season in January with a nearly unprecedented midseason coaching swap.

On Jan. 23, the Bucks fired first-year head coach Adrian Griffin, who had gone 30-13 and had Milwaukee in second place in the Eastern Conference. A week later, they hired Doc Rivers for his reputation coaching star players, believing he was better suited to help the team reach its potential.

Rivers was open about the difficulties of taking over a team with championship aspirations midseason, knowing that practice time was limited. Rivers also inherited a coaching staff he has all but signaled he will make changes to over the offseason. He brought in a few assistants he has worked with in the past, but with holdovers from both Mike Budenholzer and Griffin’s staff, the Bucks have 10 assistant coaches on the bench every game.

In 36 games under Rivers, the Bucks went 17-19.

“I would have liked our record to be better for sure,” Rivers said in Orlando. “We had a lot of stuff thrown at us and that’s just the way it is. But I think we’re in the right place where we need to be going into the playoffs, I’d say that. We know who we are.”

Rivers was tasked with improving the team’s defense. And while he cleaned up some easy fixes — improving their transition defense and getting the players unified under an identity — there were only modest gains. The Bucks rose from 20th in defensive efficiency in games under Griffin to 15th in games under Rivers.

Rivers also emphasized the need for a stronger pick-and-roll connection between Lillard and Antetokounmpo. He began practices with both stars on one side of the court, with the other starters on the opposite side, forcing the duo to set and re-set picks for each other from different spots on the floor.

Before Rivers arrived, the Bucks ran 17.2 on-ball screens per 100 possessions with Lillard as the ballhandler and Antetokounmpo as the screener. Under Rivers, that number jumped to 24.5, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

However, the Bucks’ three stars didn’t spend much time on the floor together. After Rivers began coaching on Jan. 29, Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Khris Middleton were in the starting lineup together for a total of eight games. Lillard will be 34 in July. Middleton will be 33 this summer. And Antetokounmpo will turn 30 next season.

The Bucks dipped into their future last season to acquire Lillard and are projected to pay the luxury tax for a fifth straight season, limiting the team’s options going forward. The Bucks can trade their 2024 and 2031 first-round picks starting the night of the draft. However, with such a small sample size of having their best players healthy and on the court under Rivers, it’s unlikely the front office will make major changes to the roster despite a second straight first-round exit.

“It’s tough anytime you try to connect things together and you don’t have a chance to do it in live action enough times,” Lillard said.

The statement was emblematic of the Bucks season. For a third straight year, including an MCL sprain that kept Middleton out of 10 games in the 2022 playoffs, the Bucks did not have their best players on the floor for the playoffs.

“It’s been a crazy year, man,” Portis said after Game 5. “We’ve had three coaches. Started off the season great. Didn’t end the season great, had a bad skid in April. It’s been ups and downs, guys in and out the lineup. “We went to Vegas,” Portis continued with a laugh.

“We did everything.”

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