Breaking Down Milwaukee Bucks’ Potential First-Round Matchups

The West’s legendary Golden State Warriors, the North’s well-armed Toronto Raptors and the upstart Philadelphia 76ers all have plans to top the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference or NBA Finals.

The banged-up Bucks have to get there first, though, and it might not be so easy.

While Milwaukee struggles to recover from a string of injuries, the teams they’re most likely to meet in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs are looking stronger than ever. Could the NBA’s best team be eliminated in the first round?

How Bad Is It?

It’s pretty bad. The injuries to Milwaukee’s starters have required greater production from Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, bigger minutes from Ersan Ilyasova, Tony Snell and Pat Connaughton, as well as from deep reserves like DJ Wilson.

Let’s assess, through the very terrible to the merely inconvenient.

Entirely Out

Mar 7, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) drives for the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Wesley Matthews (23) during the first quarter at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Brogdon – Starting shooting guard: Minor plantar fascia tear, confirmed by MRI on March 16. The foot injury was estimated to keep Brogdon sidelined for 6-8 weeks. His earliest expected return is April 27, around Game 7 of Round 1 or into Round 2.

Nikola Mirotic – Bench forward: Left thumb fracture March 20. Estimated to be out two to four weeks. Luckily, he’s a righty. His earliest expected return is April 4, before the end of the regular season. Latest is April 17 around Game 2 of Round 1.

Pau Gasol – Reserve power forward: Ankle soreness has kept Gasol out for six straight games. No word on his return.

Donte DiVincenzo – Rookie bench guard: The promising guard was a regular rotation player early in the season but can’t seem to get fully back from a heel injury. No word on his return.

Returned Friday

Mar 15, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) fouls Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Demi-god / Starting small forward: Antetokounmpo played Friday versus the Miami Heat after missing two games to an ankle sprain. With the Raptors only two games back, the Bucks cannot afford to rest the ankle much now. Any small damage, nagging injury or recurring nightmares the Greek Freak experiences must at least be a minor concern.

George Hill – Reserve veteran point guard: Recurring groin soreness recently sidelined Hill for two weeks straight, and off-and-on since. In Brogdon’s absence, head coach Mike Budenholzer would likely draw more on Hill’s defense and extensive playoff experience, but the nagging injury could slow Hill and the Bucks down.

Sterling Brown – Bench guard: Wrist soreness caused Milwaukee’s young 3-and-D wing to miss 13 games. He returned Friday.

Who’s Threatening in Round 1?

no. 8: Miami Heat (1-3 vs. MIL)

Mar 22, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks Forward Giannis Antetokoumpo (34) and Forward Khris Middleton (22) exchange jerseys with Miami Heat Guard Dwayne Wade (3) as he plays his last game at Fiserv Forum. Milwaukee Bucks won 116-87. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

If the playoffs started today, this would be the Round 1 matchup. The Heat might have the best chance of taking down the Bucks, but it certainly didn’t look that way Friday, when Milwaukee throttled Miami 116-87.

In their defense, the Heat were down a man, too.

Justise Winslow missed his fourth game in a row due to injury, and his exemplary defense and vastly improved scoring were desperately missed. Yet, Miami’s fortunes might be brighter if Erik Spoelstra takes advantage of another defensive asset: James Johnson might be the only man who’s discovered a way to consistently slow down the Greek Freak.

Antetokounmpo scores just 2.0 points on 22.0% shooting from the field and zero free throws versus Johnson on an average of 26.5 possessions per game. He slid out of the rotation around midseason and is trying to win his way back.

The results were stark versus Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo scored nine and 12 in the teams’ first two head-to-heads with Johnson on the case. Yet, March 15 Antetokounmpo had a 33-point spree during a Johnson DNP, and Friday night he dropped 27 on Miami when head coach Erik Spoelstra opted to go with bigger defenders against Antetkounmpo. (Hassan Whiteside and Kelly Olynyk had middling success while Johnson faced up against Ilyasova.)

In a long series, Miami’s relentless, grinding defense could wear down the Bucks, who will already be forced to play heavier minutes than usual. But Miami’s limp scoring might undo any real threat anyway.

No. 7: Brooklyn Nets (0-2 vs MIL)

Feb 4, 2019; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (24) drives around Brooklyn Nets small forward DeMarre Carroll (9) and small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (24) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets are winless against the Bucks so far but they have moves Milwaukee’s never seen. In both games, the Nets had a long list of inactive or injured players regular rotation players, so the Bucks have not yet faced anything resembling Brooklyn’s actual lineup.

Nevertheless, the element of surprise—plus talented clutch play by D’Angelo Russell, veteran leadership by Jared Dudley, a couple fast-break showstoppers by Rodions Kurucs, killer swats by Jarrett Allen, three balls by Joe Harris, swagger from Spencer Dinwiddie and superb coaching by Kenny Atkinson—can only go so far.

In a seven-game series, the Bucks’ talent, experience and star power would overpower the young squad, but it wouldn’t be as easy as most NBA observers expect.

No. 6:  Detroit Pistons (0-4 vs. MIL)

Jan 29, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) controls the ball as Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson (7) defends during the third quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit did sweep the season series, and decisively, but the Bucks have not seen the Pistons since the before the trade deadline. They haven’t seen them since they began their 11-4 post-All-Star run while relying heavily on three-ball, or in the latest iteration of their wildly swinging defensive strategies.

This could be one of the most peculiar series, as both teams try to figure out who the Detroit Pistons are. Could Motor City pose a major threat in the long run to Brew Town? Doubtful, but it could get really interesting.

No. 9: Orlando Magic (1-2 vs. MIL)

Jan 19, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe (6) passes the ball against Orlando Magic guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) and center Mo Bamba (right) during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic would probably benefit most of all from Malcolm Brogdon’s injury, if they can pull off a miracle and scramble into the playoffs. Brogdon has been a dark cloud in an otherwise sunny season for Orlando’s Evan Fournier.

Over three games, Fournier has been ineffectual at stopping Brogdon’s reliable production while only managing 2-16 from long-range himself. The Magic’s one win over the Bucks was a recent blowout when Antetokounmpo was out for the night.

Still, Orlando’s frontcourt has also been doubling down on its D. Big men Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon are already muscling out opponents of the paint, so they might be able to steal an extra game or two if they needn’t contend with Nikola Mirotic.

So Bucks fans, if you’re losing sleep already over the thought of “another first-round elimination,” drink some warm milk and rest easy. The monsters hiding under the bed do have some teeth and claws, but they’re nothing The Deer need to fear.


Stats from, accurate as of March 22.