Bucks get ‘a good burn’ against Thunder as playoff position, opponent still undetermined

Bucks get ‘a good burn’ against Thunder as playoff position, opponent still undetermined


OKLAHOMA CITY — On Friday, before the Milwaukee Bucks took the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder in their penultimate game of the regular season, head coach Doc Rivers laid out the remainder of the team’s season in relatively simple terms.

“Listen, we’d love to get the two seed — we have to win a game,” Rivers said. “So, that’s at play. But let’s just say Sunday, if Dame wasn’t right, we’re not gonna play him. Otherwise, something happens there and you’re in a lot of trouble. We want the two seed. There’s no doubt about it. But we want to be healthy, too.”

So, with Damian Lillard sidelined for Friday’s game with a left adductor strain and Giannis Antetokounmpo still out with a left soleus strain, the Bucks tried to secure the No. 2 seed without their two best players. At the start of the day, Khris Middleton (left ankle injury management, Brook Lopez (rest) and Bobby Portis (rest) also found themselves on the injury report, but all three ended up playing.

With 8:29 left in the second quarter, Middleton capped off a 7-0 run for the Bucks with a floater off the glass out of a pseudo-post-up to bring them within four points of the Thunder and trigger a timeout from OKC coach Mark Daigneault, but that was the last stretch of the game that seemed to suggest the Bucks could win.

The Thunder closed the first half on a 22-9 run to take a 17-point lead before ultimately beating the Bucks, 125-107, to move into first in the Western Conference with one game left for every team on Sunday.

“First quarter, I thought the ball movement (was good), we played downhill a lot, we played through our bigs, we moved the ball, it was good basketball,” Rivers said. “Then after that, it looked like guys, everybody was trying to make plays and it’s just not who most of them were. But, you know, we got a good burn. We loved to have won, but we wanted to burn some minutes and we did that.”

Without their two primary ballhandlers, the Bucks committed 12 turnovers in the first half. That was just too much to overcome against one of the Western Conference’s best teams. Middleton scored 11 points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to put a brief scare into the Thunder, but Rivers moved to his team’s deep reserves with two minutes remaining in the period.

Middleton ended the night with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 23 minutes to lead the Bucks. Brook Lopez added 18 points as well on 7-of-14 shooting, while Malik Beasley scored 17 points, which included hitting three of his five attempts from the 3-point line.

With the loss, the Bucks now turn their attention to Sunday. At 49-32, they have the same record as the New York Knicks, but the Bucks have the tiebreaker. So at the moment, they’re the No. 2 seed and would stay there with a win over Orlando.

“Gotta win it, simple as that,” Middleton said. “We came in trying to win this game, even though we were shorthanded. It’s the same on Sunday — try to win.”

Losing would not only leave the Bucks susceptible to falling to the No. 3 seed, but also they could fall to No. 4 because of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs (48-33) are one game behind the Bucks, but own the tiebreaker because of their division record.

If the Bucks lose, here are the outcomes that could occur:

  • If the Knicks and Cavaliers both lose as well, the Bucks remain the No. 2 seed.
  • If the Knicks win and the Cavaliers lose, the Bucks fall to the No. 3 seed.
  • If the Knicks lose and the Cavaliers win, the Bucks fall to the No. 3 seed.
  • If the Knicks and Cavaliers both win, the Bucks fall to the No. 4 seed.

And that is just the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Entering the final day of the season, four teams — Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat  — could fill any of the Nos. 5-8 seeds, which means the Bucks don’t have any idea who their first-round opponent will be.

“Scouting nightmare,” Rivers said postgame. “We know we’ll be between two and four. We do know that. That’s a certainty. Other than that, we don’t know anything… The good news is no matter what, we’ll be at home for Game 1. That we do know.”

After watching the Bucks drop a first-round series to the Miami Heat as the No. 1 seed last season, a segment of Bucks fans will find themselves worrying about the Bucks’ first-round matchup and wondering whether the Bucks should try to win or lose on Sunday to try to set up a matchup against a specific opponent. Matchup hunting doesn’t really seem possible, considering anything could happen with seeds No. 5-8.

“You’re gonna face somebody good in the playoffs, no matter what,” Middleton said. “No matter if it’s the first round, second round, Eastern Conference Finals, (NBA) Finals. There’s no easy path. We learned that in the past before, winning it and also losing it, so just gotta be prepared for anybody that we play.”

(Photo of Khris Middleton and Lu Dort: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)


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