It started to get late early for the Milwaukee Bucks in their final game of the 2016-2017 NBA season.
It was game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and the Toronto Raptors had fought themselves back from a two games to one deficit, now leading the series 3-2. A win in game six, and they were on to the next round.
The Bucks came out flat, earning themselves an uphill climb in the second half. They trailed at halftime by 13, but that climb became more daunting to start the third quarter.
Milwaukee found themselves down by 25 points–on their own home court, in an elimination game–with less than 20 minutes remaining in their first truly promising season in nearly a decade, longer according to some.
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the image of a brutal blowout loss could have been engrained into the mindset of the franchise.
They could have finished off an otherwise positive and optimistic season with a stain that wouldn’t wash out.
Perhaps motivated to avoid such an outcome, the Bucks fought back, even taking a lead in the 4th quarter. It wasn’t enough though, as Toronto finished off the game and the series.
Six months later, there’s little chance the Raptors series holds real estate in the minds of players, and if it does, it’s likely out of confidence.
A confidence that they weren’t exposed during an extended battle with one of the conference’s best teams, but that they could play with anybody, and that soon, they would beat any team that stood in their way.
The 2017-18 NBA season kicked off as any season does; with many new things to get used to. A new batch of free agents took off for new teams, and the NBA made some moves itself.
The league moved the start date of the new season up a week, in an effort to increase off days and ease the physical burden on players, and to eliminate back-to-backs and dreadful stretches that saw teams playing four games in four different cities in a span of five days.
Moving the season up a week also cut down on the usually lengthy preseason, meaning coaches, like Jason Kidd, had to make quick decisions with less time to evaluate rosters.
Before his team’s final preseason game, Kidd let his players know what he wanted to see before cutting down his roster.
“They’ve done all the work we’ve asked them to,” said Kidd. “They’ve all been great. This is a tough decision and so we don’t need anyone to do anything heroic, just be themselves.”
Milwaukee’s opponent in their final trial run was the Detroit Pistons, led by veteran Head Coach Stan Van Gundy, who was fairly candid in his assessment of the shortened preseason.
“I feel rushed,” he said. “From the player’s standpoint, the question is are they even ready to start the season? The idea was well thought out by the league office, but whether that’s a benefit is what we’re going to find out.”
All eyes this season in Milwaukee, and perhaps in the country, fall on 22-year-old veteran Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has achieved one name status typically reserved for the likes of Madonna.
The reigning Most Improved Player is entering the fifth year of a career that has seen him live up to the award each season. In his past three seasons, he has improved in each of the major statistical categories–points, rebounds, assists, blocks.
The league took notice, as he was voted by the fans to start for the Eastern Conference in last year’s All Star Game.
With added attention and praise, comes added pressure. His coach thinks he will be just fine.
“I think he’s gotten better from last year,” said Kidd. “His maturity for 22 years old is off the charts. He understands the game. When you talk about a student of the game, as a coach, he picks up things very quickly.”
A little more than two weeks before the season, Antetokounmpo received news off the floor that no one is ready to hear.
His father, Charles, had suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 54. Antetokounmpo took some time away from the team to be with his family, but soon was back to work.
Back to work for the only team he’s ever known, in the only city in America he’s ever known. The wily veteran, barely old enough to drink, is quickly becoming the leader of a team on the rise. A player Coach Kidd is more than pleased to have.
“When you have those types of abilities, it just takes you places no one has ever been.”