On Wednesday night the Milwaukee Bucks looked like the team everyone thought they’d be coming into this season. Or at least closer to it.
Their offense looked unstoppable as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard endlessly paraded to the rim and charity stripe. Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez once again looked like the defensive stalwarts they are and not the ones captaining a bottom-third defense.
This is who the Bucks were supposed to be. It just took firing their coach midway through the season to get there.
Likewise, this month-and-a-half stretch for the Cleveland Cavaliers has shown what this team was supposed to look like. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff opened up preseason by saying he wanted to see his team shoot up to 50 threes in a game only to have that not materialize over the first third of the season.
“I believe we have to [play this way],” Bickerstaff said. “These were lessons learned from playoff experience and where we were aiming to get to at the start of this year. The year just started out so jumbled for us. We had so many guys that were in and out and that were missing. This was going to be a change stylistically. So it was going to take us a little bit of time.”
This is who the Cavs were supposed to be. It just required sacrificing Darius Garland and Evan Mobley for over a month and a half to get there.
Wednesday’s game provided a progress report on where each stood. The Cavs improved style of play wasn’t able to overcome the talent disadvantage as they didn’t have the playmakers to crack Milwaukee’s defense.
Meanwhile, the Bucks played with a togetherness and joy that they haven’t had throughout this season. Antetokounmpo credited their unity for their recent performance.
“With all the news that happened yesterday, I think the guys came in and understood that we have to be one,” Antetokounmpo said after Wednesday’s game. “We have to become one. . . we’re gonna try to be better from this.”
Donovan Mitchell echoed a similar sentiment the week prior.
“I think you’re defined most when adversity hits,” Mitchell said. “We’re a group that’s really just finding it together.”
Both team’s goals are to become the best versions of themselves over the second half of the season which means different things, but the goal remains to put the pieces together in the way that makes the most sense.
Due to a weird scheduling quirk, all four of their matchups this season have come during this time of transition. The Bucks won their first matchup on Dec. 29 just before the new-look Cavs went on their winning streak. Cleveland blew them out in their next meeting by 40 points in one of Adrian Griffin’s final games as coach. The day after his firing, the Bucks showed who the more talented team was at the moment.
Tonight’s matchup won’t show us where the final destination is going to be. It’s just the beginning of the next chapter of the journey as Doc Rivers will be taking over in Milwaukee and Darius Garland and Evan Mobley’s return is just around the corner. Each team hopes what they learned over the last month allows them to reach their ultimate goal.
“It just took a little bit of time for it all to come together and I don’t expect it to change,” Bickerstaff said. “Obviously when Evan and Darius come back, it’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment period. But we don’t expect this to have to change.”