The Milwaukee Bucks had amassed the NBA’s best record, winning 53 of 65 games, and were playing in front of boisterous, sold-out crowds at the Fiserv Forum before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly halted the season.
Now, nearly four months later, when players should have been enjoying a summer break, the Bucks are preparing to travel to Orlando to resume a quest for the franchise’s first NBA title since the 1970-71 season amid a host of unknowns.
The Bucks 17-player squad, along with coaches and key personnel, will be sequestered in a “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, where games will be played without fans. A restart of the season is slated for July 30.
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Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will attempt to recapture the spark that had made the team the talk of the city and had them on the precipice of winning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“Now that we don’t have the advantage anymore, it sucks a little bit. We worked all year to play at home,” Antetokounmpo said in a video conference with reporters on Wednesday after taking part in individual workouts at the team’s training facility in Downtown Milwaukee.
“We are hard to beat at home and we have fans who support us every night, and not being able to have them out there is going to hurt a little bit.”
The Greek Freak admitted that challenges abound, including having family members banned from the resort and trying to pick up where the team left off before COVID-19 drastically changed the sports landscape.
“Personally, I’m excited,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, kind of worried and don’t know what to expect once I get there. But I want to play basketball and go out there with my teammates again and win some games and go out there to play for something and chase a goal.”
That goal is to capture a title, Antetokounmpo stressed.
If the Bucks are successful in being crowned as the NBA’s best team, the players and fans should cherish it, regardless of the disjointed season and unusual circumstances, he said.
And Antetokounmpo doesn’t want to hear any talk about an asterisk in the record book.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that there’s going to be, like, a star next this championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “I feel like this is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win because the circumstances are really, really tough right now. Whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
Antetokounmpo is a new father and very close to his family. The lengthy separation will be an added challenge, as will concerns about remaining healthy, he said.
“Obviously, everybody has concerns about their health,” Antetokounmpo said. “Nobody wants to put themselves in a risk out there. But we are going to resume the games. We’ve all got to do our job, and my job is to play basketball and go out there and support my teammates and represent the city.”
Antetokounmpo admitted that the quality of play could be ragged at the start due to the long layoff.
“As we move forward and guys get more comfortable, the level of basketball is going to get better each game,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready to go, but I know I’m going to be a little bit rusty.”
Antetokounmpo is convinced that the Bucks can continue their winning ways once they return to the court in Florida, regardless of the circumstances.
“I think we are a great team. We have great chemistry on the court,” he said. “Once we start playing again, I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer agreed and credited the teams’ work ethic.
“I think this group continues to have great focus,” he said.
Budenholzer expects to have a full roster when the team travels to Orlando, with no players expressing a desire to opt out of playing the remainder of the season – as have some players on other teams.
Budenholzer expects the Bucks’ depth, considered to be among the league’s best, to continue to provide an advantage.
“I think no matter the circumstances, depth is always crucial to success in our eyes, and we’ve tried to build a roster with great depth and versality,” he said. “We feel incredibly good about the quality of our roster and hopefully that’s something that plays out for us in our favor.”
The team has to put the lengthy delay behind it and not worry about whether it has stymied the momentum the team had generated on the court through mid-March.
“It’s not something we talk about,” Budenholzer said. “We are just excited to get back to working and playing and participating in the playoffs.”