By: Jeffrey Newholm
In Saturday’s hotly anticipated Bucks-Warriors game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, it was like many Golden State games before it: a double digit game with a minute to go. All the Warrior starters were out of the game, neither coach bothered calling timeout and there wasn’t an unending sequence of fouls and free throws. Just another ho-hum Warrior win. Except for one minor detail: it was the 9-15 Bucks that had the 13 point lead, not the 24-0 Warriors. By now we all know how the game ended up. But the real mystery is: how did we get to this point?
In 2014 the usually mediocre Bucks outdid themselves with their awfulness: a league and franchise worst 15-67 record, with the team never in the playoff race. But after the team was sold to east coast investors and Jason Kidd was hired, the Bucks quickly gained respectability. Despite the loss of #2 draft pick Jabari Parker to injury, the Bucks managed to earn a more tolerable 41-41 record, earned the #6 seed in the East, and won their first playoff game since 2010. With the approval of a new arena and the signing of hotly recruited free agent Greg Monroe, Milwaukee fans were expecting a top four seed in the east and potentially the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2001.
Then the season started.
After a 25 point home opening loss to the lowly Knicks, it quickly became apparent that the intangible grit that defined Kidd’s first team in Milwaukee was sorely missing from his second. The Bucks lost games with awful third quarters and terrible three point defense. There was a minority of fans who were worried the trades of veteran leaders Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley would leave the team without key voices in the locker room, but most fans simply assumed Kidd himself could be that voice. But through the first 24 games those fears seemed well founded. The Bucks did show promise by knocking off the mighty Cavs, but there was no reason to expect them to be the first team to beat the mighty Warriors.
The story of Golden State is a much more uplifting one. The 2014 team did have a 51-31 record, but this was only good for the #6 seed in a then hyper-competitive west. After losing in the first round, management made the controversial call of firing coach Mark Jackson and replacing him with rookie coach Steve Kerr. While many surely scoffed at firing a coach of a 50 win team, it turned out to be a brilliant decision as the Warriors won a league best 67 games, Stephen Curry was MVP and the franchise won its first world title in 40 years. This year the Warriors have been putting on an incredible encore under coach Luke Walton (filling in due to Kerr’s back injury), racing out to the best start in the history of American major professional sports. So in short, this looked like a big mismatch. But the one thing gave the Bucks hope, and made NBA nation take pause, was what the Warriors had to do to get to 24-0 Friday night.
In a game Klay Thompson missed due to an ankle injury, Curry and company literally had to work overtime to win in Boston—double overtime, to be precise. The team found themselves down five with two minutes to go, but somehow came all the way back to win. But Curry and costar Draymond Green had to play 45+ minutes to accomplish the feat. Many in Milwaukee were optimistic about their team’s chances. The Bucks Twitter account even went so far as to predict a victory. But certainly many teams this year thought they had a chance to end the streak. Could the Bucks actually do it?
From early on in the first quarter, it was clear the streak was in jeopardy. The ease with which the Warriors could crank out threes was clearly not present. In fact, Golden State ended up shooting 6 of 26 from downtown. 6 of 26? From Golden State? Did impostors come off that plane from Boston? On the other end of the court, Monroe terrorized the Warriors inside to the tune of 28 points on 68% shooting. Maligned bench player Michael Carter-Williams fought hard rather than pouting, adding 17 points on 70% shooting. Add in three other players in double figures, and the Bucks had easily enough points to win. Twice the Bucks blew or almost blew a double digit lead. Each time, the team refocused and built the lead back up again. When the clock hit 1:00 in the fourth, there was no drama left: the streak was history.
So where do these teams go from here? The Bucks are still 13th in a much improved east, four games out of a playoff spot. The win doesn’t do a lot for them in the standings, but considering there’s 57 games to go it could be the spark-plug the team needs to salvage the season. The Warriors, on the other hand, still have a four game lead in the race for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Unless the team falls apart, the only drama left in the regular season is if they can get to 70 or more wins. With the streak over, the only real challenge left is the playoffs. Saturday’s game may not mean anything for either team in the long run, but it will still go down as one of the most memorable events ever held at the Bradley Center. For one night, the Bucks were world champions—or at least it felt that way.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP