Maybe, just maybe, the Milwaukee Bucks time is now

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors
Jan 1, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34), guard Eric Bledsoe (6) and guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) take the court at an NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In the mind of Thon Maker, the NBA’s most gifted roster doesn’t reside in Golden State. Nor does it call Houston home.

If you were to suggest Boston, Toronto or Cleveland – three teams who have dominated the Eastern Conference standings all season – you would be getting closer, but still incorrect. A little confused? Maker certainly isn’t. For him, the answer is as apparent as it may seem wicked to many.

“We are the most talented team in the league,” Maker told The Pick and Roll, when asked what his Milwaukee Bucks can accomplish this season. No wriggle room in this response, just conviction and confidence coming from the sophomore big man. The belief excites Maker. It allows him to safely proclaim that, top to bottom, the potential in Milwaukee’s roster is unmatched.

On first glance, Maker’s proclamation appears a trifle overbold. It feels like clichéd optimism, masking the reality of life in a Golden State Warriors-led NBA. But there is something endearing about Maker, a spirit too genuine to be overlooked. Spend a few minutes around him and you’ll quickly be seduced. You’re drawn in by the warm smile, as he discusses a battery of questions covering family, basketball development and Australian hoops, the demeanour juxtaposed with a serious mien that approaches anguish, as he scrutinises last season’s playoff defeat to the Toronto Raptors.

He is serious yet humble, ruthless yet lucid; everything we, as society, want from professional athletes in a millennial age. Perhaps the modest Wisconsin community that nurtures his professional development is rubbing off. Or maybe that’s the Australian influence. Better yet, maybe it’s a combination of both. Regardless of how it arose, the result is unwavering belief in those around him.

“Some people believe it and some people don’t,” Maker explained. “We believe it as a unit. It’s just about coming together at the right time and staying healthy.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sure helps reinforce Maker’s brash confidence.

Any discussion on the Bucks capacity to legitimately contend in the playoffs must start with the obvious: their universe pivots around Antetokounmpo. Their ultimate destiny rests on his shoulders. Antetokounmpo’s seemingly limitless ceiling places an element of identifiable truth in Maker’s comments. That’s the power of life in the NBA with a genuine MVP candidate; one supreme talent can propel a franchise up the mountaintop. And yet, even the most transcendent of superstars need help along the way.

Michael needed Luc Longley and Steve Kerr. Shaq and Kobe needed Robert Horry. LeBron needed Shane Battier and, once upon a time in Cleveland, Matthew Dellavedova. Not to close out championship moments that live forever; no, that’s above their pay grade. Role players were needed to help elevate their leaders into those moments where greatness takes over. That is where the Aussie Connect currently sits at, in Milwaukee.

Maker and Dellavedova are two Australian stars in this Greek-led solar system. They are reserve pieces servicing roles in the Bucks galaxy; just as Dellavedova did last week when helping close out Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers.

This is familiar territory for Dellavedova, who along with Jason Terry are the only members of this Bucks roster to have advanced past the second round of the NBA playoffs. After signing with Milwaukee during 2016’s free agency bonanza, Dellavedova’s role quickly elevated to new heights. He started 54 games last season, played the most minutes of his career and was relied upon like never before. Funny how a freshly minted $38 million (USD) contract can change expectations.

This season has seen a 360-degree turn back to what defined Dellavedova’s success as a Cavalier. He has moved back into a permanent bench role, largely due to the addition of Eric Bledsoe and emergence of Malcolm Brogdon. Throw in the added challenges of a left knee injury – one that sidelined him for 15 games – and the associated rehabilitation period, and his per game minute average is down to the lowest since his rookie season.

“It’s obviously annoying anytime you need to miss games,” Dellavedova told The Pick and Roll last week. “But we had to try and get it right.”

This was Dellavedova speaking before his latest setback in Brooklyn on Sunday, where he collapsed to the floor during the fourth quarter of a Milwaukee victory.  The Australian has been diagnosed with a bone bruise and a Grade 3 sprain of his right ankle, according to ESPN. He is expected to be sidelined up to four weeks.

The prospect of Dellavedova missing games creates a gulf within the Bucks backcourt. With Brogdon suffering an injury to his left quadriceps that will keep him sidelined for two months, Dellavedova’s minutes were slowly ramping up. He had played over 25 minutes in three consecutive games prior to his ankle injury, after doing so four times over his first 33 games of the season.

With Dellavedova on the sideline for an extended period, Joe Prunty, Milwaukee’s interim head coach, now has his first significant challenge since taking charge. The Bucks are now 7-1 under Prunty. The results since his appointment, along with the general demeanour of those around the team, validate the decision that it was time to move on from Jason Kidd.

Prunty has reinforced Dellavedova’s importance since taking the reins. Speaking after a recent victory over the Chicago Bulls, Prunty called the Maryborough native an important piece for his team, before further promoting the work ethic of his stocky point guard.

“He works hard every time he’s on the floor,” Prunty explained. “On defence, always trying to get into the right position.

“Offensively, he’s always trying to think the game through. Not only from his perspective, but ok, where should we get a shot? The things that he does and the intensity that he brings to the game. Everybody brings their certain niche and he does a great job with his.”

Jabari Parker’s return from injury signalled what was supposed to be the final influx of talent for Milwaukee. The former number two overall draft pick returned to action on Friday night against New York. He will remain on a strict minutes limit for the foreseeable future, but Parker’s return is yet another boost. “We are looking forward to having JP [Jabari Parker] back and getting him reintegrated,” Dellavedova added.

The return of Parker gives Milwaukee something they haven’t had in almost two years. Prior to Friday, the trio of Middleton, Parker and Antetokounmpo hadn’t played a minute of NBA basketball together in 22 months – they last shared the court on 13 April 2016, the final game of the 2015/16 regular season. For context, that was two months before Dellavedova became an NBA champion and three months before Maker was drafted. The Australia duo have never witnessed their most talented teammates on the floor together.

Speaking prior to his fall in Brooklyn (and under the pretense of a fully fit Bucks roster), Dellavedova implored his Milwaukee teammates to power through to next weekend’s All-Star break. “We have a great opportunity to try make a run before the break,” he explained. “We’ve got some important games coming up. But it is exciting.”

These comments now appear somewhat morbid given what occurred in Brooklyn. Yet even without their Australian point guard, an opportunity remains for these Bucks to fulfil Dellavedova’s declaration. The triumvirate of Middleton, Parker and Antetokounmpo were once seen as a burgeoning ‘big 3’ who could lead Milwaukee’s rise up the Eastern Conference. While injury concerns have obviously cast a shadow over this, Parker’s return offers further hope and a reason to believe.

Milwaukee currently sits fifth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 30-23. They are just one win below Cleveland for the third seed, yet sit only three games clear of the ninth seeded Pistons. Such is the convoluted nature of the East’s playoff race. The middle class is stronger than prior years, but each playoff contender owns valid concerns that threaten their playoff mortality.

John Wall’s latest injury setback presents an unwanted challenge for Washington. Detroit, already free falling since Reggie Jackson’s injury, just pulled the trigger on a textbook panic trade. Philadelphia’s leading talents are devoid of playoff experience. Simply getting in is their challenge this season.

Miami’s liquorice all-sorts mix is infinitely successful during the regular season, but in the postseason, history tells us the Bucks would be favoured in a potential matchup. Simply put: Giannis outweighs any number of reliable Heat role players.

While unproven within a playoff setting, Milwaukee arguably has more potential than all other teams within the Eastern Conference middleclass. They are right to strive for the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round. Beyond that, who knows?

History shows that betting against LeBron is a fool’s errand, but the Cavaliers’ annual turmoil is looking more serious than ever. The Raptors are much improved, but do you really trust them within a playoff setting? The Celtics are winning 70 percent of their games despite a rash of injuries, but can they keep this up through June?

However you slice it, the Eastern Conference appears more vulnerable than any point since LeBron started his one-man dictatorship. Just don’t call the conference, and those within it, a poor relation. Maker won’t have it.

“I wouldn’t say the East is weak,” Maker said. “We’ve done better than the West. People just look at it from an individual player standpoint. When you play head-to-head and see the stat sheets, at the end of the day, look at the results of which teams win.”

Milwaukee currently has a record of 13-7 against the Western Conference, and is treading water at 16-16 against those in their own conference. The Bucks must still visit both Los Angeles teams, Golden State and Denver – all during a difficult four game road trip to close March – so their ‘dominance’ over the West will be further tested. Maker and his team are ready for the challenge.

“We do really well against the West,” Maker proclaimed. “Early on in the season we were smacking the West.” There it is again from Maker; further self-assurance in support of his initial theory. In his mind, the Bucks are just waiting for their moment. The invitation to their own breakout party.

Last season saw Milwaukee return to the NBA playoffs for the first time since Antetokounmpo was a rookie. The upstart Bucks jumped the Toronto Raptors in game one. They virtually ran their opponents out of Wisconsin in game three and for a fleeting moment, the destiny of an Antetokounmpo led contender was afforded air to breathe. This was only a temporary disposition. The NBA’s ultimate cliché took over and a veteran laden Raptors squad ground out three successive games to close out Milwaukee.

Memories of that Toronto series keep Maker motivated. They keep his mind racing about what could have been, while also providing an educational apprenticeship he hopes will propel the Bucks forward this year.

“Those guys got it in the end but I don’t think they wanted it more than we did,” Maker explains. “We just didn’t do a few things in some of the middle games.”

Six games against Toronto is the extent of Maker’s postseason experience. It is all he currently knows of the crucible that is playoff basketball. Barring something unimaginable, there will be more formative experiences to be had this season. Until that eventuates, he cannot escape the memories of Toronto. There is a competitive force that dictates so.

“If you were to do that same match-up again it would be a different story,” Maker proclaims. Once again, no wriggle room here. Just youthful exuberance doing as it loves to do. “We are more than motivated. We have played them twice this year already. It didn’t look good for us but it’s what at the end that counts.”

It’s all about the end game for these Bucks.

They have burgeoning talents. They have growing reputations. They have big dreams.

As for a plan on how Milwaukee can actually become one of the top teams in the league, Maker has that covered too.

“In order to do that, we need to move the ball, play hard on defence and just have fun,” Maker declares with a smile.

It sounds so apt. Just have fun and the rest will take care of itself.

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