Giannis Antetokounmpo and company did their best to conjure playoff enthusiasm Saturday, ricocheting off one another during introductions and grabbing an early lead against the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series. The reigning MVP finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and three assists in the Bucks’ 118-104 victory, which sent Milwaukee to the second round and a matchup with the Miami Heat.
The game returned, but normalcy, whatever that means these days, did not. The Bucks took the court at the same arena — AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex — and occupied the same locker room as they did Wednesday, when they became the first team in modern NBA history to refuse to take the court in protest of racial injustice.
“Walking into that [locker room] space, remembering what our players did, the phrase being on the right side of history [applies],” said Coach Mike Budenholzer, who was in the locker room with his team for its three-hour meeting Wednesday. “You felt something going back in there. Trying to end racial injustice and end racism and make this world a better place is still more important than us winning.”
That decision led to the postponement of three days of playoff games and the scrapping of games in several other sports, and it extended negotiations between players and team owners that culminated in an agreement to establish a social justice coalition, use NBA arenas as polling places and air new television commercials to encourage participation in the voting process. The NBA did not rule the Bucks’ action a forfeit, instead picking up the series where it left off.
Antetokounmpo, who arrived at the arena Wednesday expecting to play, explained Milwaukee’s change of heart. Guard George Hill, who had questioned whether games should continue following Blake’s shooting, told his teammates he wasn’t going to play. Sterling Brown, who sued the city of Milwaukee for alleged police brutality during a 2018 arrest, followed suit. That led Antetokounmpo to stand by his teammates.
“I decided, as a leader, I’m not playing this game,” Antetokounmpo said. “I told Coach: ‘I’m not playing. I can’t leave my teammates behind.’ They felt some type of way about the situation that was going on. They weren’t in the right space to play the game, [and I] 100 percent fully support them. We decided later as a team to not go out there.”
Blake’s shooting was not the only recent news development weighing on the minds of Milwaukee’s players. Before tipoff, the NBA held a moment of silence for Cliff Robinson, Lute Olson and Chadwick Boseman, flashing their images on the big video boards behind the benches. The three men — an NBA all-star, a college coaching legend and the actor best known for playing the title role in “Black Panther” — had died since Thursday.
The death of Boseman, of a previously unrevealed cancer diagnosis, prompted an outpouring of support from the NBA community Friday night, and word of Robinson’s passing spread early Saturday. With multiple players in the bubble expressing feelings of emotional exhaustion in the wake of Blake’s shooting, the three-day shutdown had seemed like a needed respite. Instead, play resumed under even more somber circumstances.
“Praying for his family,” Antetokounmpo said of Boseman, whom he had met and whom he called a “great actor and great human being.”
Milwaukee entered the bubble as the East’s favorite, and its first-round play vacillated from concerning to dominant. A flat Game 1 loss ensured the Bucks were the only of the East’s four semifinalists not to sweep, and all-star forward Khris Middleton opened the playoffs in a shooting slump. But Antetokounmpo restored order before long: The undermanned Magic, which was missing multiple key frontcourt pieces, could do little to slow his parade of thunderous dunks and acrobatic finishes.
At the end of Game 5, Antetokounmpo sealed the Magic’s fate by drilling a dagger three-pointer from the left side. For years, analysts have identified the outside shot as the major weakness in his game. Antetokounmpo made 3 of 6 three-point attempts Saturday, leaving the Magic to begin the Disney World checkout process.
But Milwaukee was hardly in a celebratory mood afterward. Middleton refused to take basketball questions, instead using his postgame interview to encourage people to vote and call on the Wisconsin legislature to pass a reform bill next week.
“It was very difficult today,” said Middleton, who finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “We had an extremely long couple of days emotionally. We all stuck together. We had in-depth conversations. We backed each other up. We stuck together just like a brotherhood should do. I didn’t think it would become as big as it became, the history. We were proud of that decision. We truly felt it wasn’t the right day to play the game.”
The Bucks will face stiffer competition in the second round from a Heat team that swept the Pacers so convincingly that Indiana fired its coach, Nate McMillan, just weeks after giving him a contract extension. Antetokounmpo will need to contend with Bam Adebayo, a quick, strong, long and smart interior defender who has had some success against him in the regular season. Middleton will square off with all-star forward Jimmy Butler, a tenacious scorer who heads up a balanced Miami attack.
Those matchups and other basketball questions will consume the Bucks over the next few days, but their minds remain elsewhere. After taking a stand Wednesday, the Bucks arranged a team phone call with Jacob Blake Sr., the father of the Black man who was shot seven times by police about 40 miles south of Milwaukee.
“His dad was tearing up and telling us how powerful what we did that day was for him and his family,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s bigger than basketball. You’re going to remember the way we felt for the rest of our lives.”