The Milwaukee Bucks are not better without Giannis Antetokounmpo. That shouldn’t need to be said, but in light of the 3-0 deficit they fell into against the Miami Heat with him on the court and the comeback Game 4 victory they earned without him for most of the game, the basis of a harmful and incorrect narrative is beginning to form. Milwaukee’s win was not a direct result of their superstar’s absence. By any objective measure, the Bucks are a better team with Giannis on the floor.
The Bucks outscored opponents by 15.4 points per 100 possessions with Giannis on the floor this season and only 2.4 when he sat. That 13-point gap is superstar-caliber, and it isn’t an outlier. They were 9.4 points per 100 better with Giannis on the floor last season, and have been better in his minutes in all but one of his seven NBA campaigns (with his sophomore year being the lone exception).
That hasn’t been limited to the regular season either. The Bucks were, again, better with Giannis on the floor than with him on the bench in their first eight playoff games this season. The same was true last season, even in their Eastern Conference Finals loss. The Bucks outscored the Raptors by 2.5 points per 100 possessions with Giannis on the floor… and got blasted by 10.3 when he sat. Even in Game 4 Sunday, the Bucks were better with Giannis on the floor (plus-2 in 18 minutes) than they were without him (plus-1 in 35).
Now, it’s worth noting that the Bucks have struggled during playoff fourth quarters with Giannis on the floor, particularly against Toronto last season and Miami this season. But in winning on Sunday, the Bucks didn’t exactly correct the issues that led to those struggles. The Bucks had the NBA’s best-clutch defense during the regular season, but only its 11th-best clutch offense. That offense didn’t get any better with Giannis out. It scored only 22 points in the fourth quarter, but forced overtime by holding Miami to 19. Khris Middleton, despite a great third quarter and some killer buckets in overtime, was scoreless in the fourth. He went 3-for-11 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, good for 27.2 percent. On the season, he shot 49.3 percent from the field in fourth quarters and overtimes combined. Let’s not pretend he turned into a drastically different clutch offensive player without Giannis.
So if the Bucks didn’t get some sort of magical boost from losing their MVP, what was behind their victory? There was no single, overarching factor. The Bucks didn’t overwhelm the Heat in a single area. But a number of minor factors both in and out of their control helped them stay alive.
Mike Budenholzer deserves a shred of credit for finally using a playoff rotation. Khris Middleton sat for only five of the 53 minutes in this game. Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe both reached 40 minutes, and George Hill, at 37, played more minutes than Giannis did in any game of this series. He also threw the Heat off of their game-plan by running three-guard lineups that Miami could not have realistically prepared for because the Bucks practically never used them prior to this game. The Heat built their game-plan around facing Giannis. Even if the Bucks are worse without him, changing gears so quickly to face a different sort of opponent is extremely difficult. The Houston Rockets can attest to that. They were built to beat the Kevin Durant-version of the Golden State Warriors a season ago. They played that team to a 2-2 draw… and then lost the two final games of the series with Durant hurt.
They also, fortunately, drew some unlucky shooting variance from Miami’s two best offensive players in this series. Jimmy Butler was only 6-of-15 from the field, while Goran Dragic was 1-of-9 from behind the arc. Now, other Miami players made up for that, but it’s hard to win a game in which you make only 23 2-point shots in 53 minutes. That was what happened to Miami in Game 4 with Butler struggling.
But the ways in which a Milwaukee team might theoretically get better without Giannis on the floor didn’t exactly materialize. His absence didn’t improve their spacing, as the Bucks shot 11-of-35 on 3-pointers in this game. Meanwhile, despite missing one of the NBA’s leading rebounders, they outrebounded the Heat by five. What happened after Giannis exited the game was not in any way, shape or form predictable. It was, simply, professional sports. Sometimes, the better team loses.
That was the case on Sunday. It probably won’t be the case on Tuesday if Giannis can’t go. No matter what happened in Game 4, the Bucks unquestionably need their MVP if they plan to win this series. No matter how tempting a narrative Sunday might offer, there is no objective reason to believe that the Bucks are a better team without Giannis. Game 4 was the exception, not the rule, and that shouldn’t need to be said.