LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After the Milwaukee Bucks came back from a 23-point deficit against the Miami Heat on Thursday to claim a 130-116 victory and clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked whether Miami was the biggest threat to stop the Bucks from emerging from the Eastern Conference and reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in 45 years.
After pausing, and then listing the five teams behind Milwaukee in the standings — Toronto, Boston, Miami, Indiana and Philadelphia — the NBA’s reigning and presumptive Most Valuable Player made his choice for who has the best chance of stopping the Bucks:
“I think the biggest challenge for us is ourselves,” Antetokounmpo said. “How are we going to play? How hard are we going to play? Are we going to play for one another? Are we going to defend hard? Are we going to be able to rebound the ball? Are we going to be able to make the extra effort? Are we going to dive on the floor?
“It’s all about us. It’s all about us.”
Antetokounmpo’s answer also served as a perfect summation of the way the game between the Bucks and Heat had played out. Miami, playing without Jimmy Butler (foot) and Goran Dragic (ankle), stormed out to a 17-point halftime lead, hitting 13 3-pointers in the first half, and generally got whatever it wanted.
When the Bucks emerged from their locker room after halftime, however, they were a different team. Milwaukee opened the second half with a 20-5 run to promptly get itself back into the contest, and then closed the game with another 20-5 run that turned a one-point game with under five minutes to play into a rout in what felt like the blink of an eye.
“It was just effort,” said Khris Middleton, who tied with Antetokounmpo to lead the Bucks with 33 points. “We all spoke about it [at halftime] and realized we just weren’t playing our best basketball. We were one or two steps behind on everything.
“So our focus was just play harder, play better.”
Milwaukee certainly did that. And Miami, after playing so crisply in the first half, began to wear down under the weight of Milwaukee’s aggressive play at both ends of the court, which allowed the Bucks to both start a parade to the foul line in the second half and get several members of the Heat — most notably Bam Adebayo — in foul trouble.
In the fourth quarter, the absence of Miami’s two best perimeter creators was clearly felt, as the Bucks swarmed over whoever had the ball for the Heat, and Miami was forced into taking one difficult shot after another.
And when those shots missed, it allowed the Bucks to get out into the open court which, more often than not, culminated with Antetokounmpo — who finished with 33 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists while going 13-for-13 from inside the 3-point arc — getting to the rim and throwing down a ferocious dunk.
“You have to give them credit,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They stepped up their pressure. We felt that more in the second half. And we didn’t help ourselves, either, with the fouling, particularly in the third quarter, we were hacking and reaching.
“That allowed them to slow the game down a little bit and get to the free throw line and just kind of crawl back into it, but you have to give them credit, for sure.”
The win clinched the top spot in the East for the Bucks — although home court has a slightly different feel to it inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort. Still, the Bucks were happy to celebrate the accomplishment, which comes with four games to spare before the playoffs begin Aug. 17.
There also was the added bonus of it coming on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s 51st birthday.
“Well, I don’t think you’d ever guess to be coaching in an NBA game on Aug. 6,” Budenholzer said. “So, pretty unique and rare times to win a game, and more importantly to have the best record in the Eastern Conference is a tribute to our players and what they’ve done every night and how they’ve brought it. I’m very proud of them.”