It’s deja vu everywherefor the Milwaukee Bucks: Their conference semifinals look eerily similar to last year’s series against the Brooklyn Nets. To refresh your memory, they were saved from being trashed by none other than Kevin Durant’s big toe by simply landing on that three-point line and sending the game into overtime, which allowed the Bucks to save it and continue their way to their first victory in a final in half a century.
But this time, they’re across the hall. If there’s any kind of pattern to be found in the sport’s virtual randomness and opportunity, I’d say this year’s Bucks are, in a way, last year’s Nets. They are the reigning champions with a new expectation to live up to, and while that wasn’t the case for Brooklyn last year, they had an all-star team that was expected to easily take on a small-market team like Milwaukee. Khris Middleton’s absence is being felt deeply on the floor against the Celtics, as were the injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving last year for Brooklyn in the first four and last three games of the series, respectively.
And just like KD did last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo is forced to put the team on his back: in last night’s loss, he scored 44 points, while the rest of the team set he contributed 51. That’s a ridiculous stat, and yet unbelievably similar to Durant’s performance in Game 7 last year, in which he scored 48 points compared to the rest of the roster’s combined 63. There’s not much a superstar can do to lead his team to victory through sheer will, and KD and Giannis are testing those limits.
Friday night’s Game 6, in which the Celtics overcame a do-or-die situation with a strong finish and a miraculous performance from Jayson Tatum, will force a Game 7, just as the Bucks did last year. To call Jayson Tatum a rising star would be a disservice: he has risen. He had 46 points last night and, if he continues in the playoffs, he is certainly defending himself. Newly minted Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP Trophy. Tatum, who faced Durant in the first round of this year’s playoffs and led his team to a complete sweep of Brooklyn, has his sights set on Giannis as the next superstar opponent to overcome, and he’s well on his way to doing so, both seemingly competing to break as many records as they each can along the way.
On Sunday, the Bucks have a chance to turn the tables, to be the team that steps up around their star, who doesn’t touch the 3-point line in crucial moments, to live up to expectations set last year. and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics are a much more successful franchise than the Bucks in terms of championship history, but it’s been more than a decade since they last took home the trophy. If the team can get past Giannis and help him finish this, the Bucks have a solid chance to repeat, but if it turns into a Tatum-Antetokounmpo matchup, there’s no telling who will emerge victorious.