A Sacrifice in Milwaukee

Things went exactly as predicted for the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. That's not quite as bad as it sounds.
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Sunday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first team to be ousted from the NBA Playoffs. This was, mostly, a matter of scheduling: the somewhat more-hopeless seventh-seeded Kobe Bryant-less L.A. Lakers were escorted out by the Spurs a few hours later. Western Conference eight seed Houston Rockets could leave the premises on Monday night, as well. Few predicted that either the Lakers or Rockets would make much noise in the postseason; the teams they were playing were just that much better. Everybody seemed to agree on Milwaukee’s chances—which is to say “no chance.” It takes a special team to inspire that sort of unanimity in fans and pundits and everyone who cares about the NBA. It takes, usually, an eighth seed.

Even as someone with a passing interest in the Bucks—which qualifies as being a fan in Milwaukee—there’s something ghostly and weird about cheering for a team that has been so casually, if correctly, pre-emptively disregarded. The games get played, with little surges and counter-surges filling in the final scores, but the outcome was always essentially a certainty. The games unfold in a very strange emotional register; resignation eroding hope en route to the outcome everyone predicted in the first place.

This is not unique to the Bucks, although the franchise does have a signature sort of hopelessness. It’s not really unique at all. On one hand, qualifying for the playoffs should be something of an honor. It implies at least an outside chance to take home a title. In Major League Baseball, a Wild Card berth oftentimes warrants a banner and sometimes results in a pennant. Non-division winners in the NFL routinely make the Super Bowl. It would seem like a perennial low-seeded playoff team could and should carry the same hope in the NBA. They all have to win the same number of games, right?

But, about that: this particular Bucks team finished the season with a 38-44 record—including a 4-12 collapse to end the season—and won fewer games than 10 teams in the West. The Bucks reached the playoffs by belonging to the dreadful and top-heavy Eastern Conference as much as through any achievement of their own. They backed into the lowest seed, and did with it what every other team to do so has done, which is nothing much. This is a seed that has never produced championship fruit since the NBA expanded to a 16-team format in 1984. The Bucks were an eighth seed and played like one. But that's still worth something.

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Even in their role as ritual sacrifice, the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. If that wasn’t clear after 82 games, it became utterly apparent during the Miami Heat’s systematic and altogether effortless excision. It went the way it was supposed to go, but Milwaukee fans still tuned in to observe the ugly spectacle most expected to unfold exactly as it did. Sure, sometimes viewing came in five-minute intervals during Brewers commercial breaks. Others surely tuned in sporadically in favor of Sunday afternoon infomercials or enduring a rerun marathon of America’s Next Top Whatever. When the Bucks returned to the deteriorating trappings of its ancient privately donated arena—designed primarily with hopes of luring an NHL team to town—carrying the prophesied 2-0 deficit, fans came out, too. It can be assumed that some of the 18,717 Milwaukeeans who filled the BMO Harris Bradley Center for that fourth and final game were there to bear witness to the legend of LeBron James or be part of a reunion with Marquette alumnus Dwyane Wade or for a last communion with Ray Allen, the last truly great Bucks player. Some of them, though, had to be there with some stubborn hope in their hearts.

And there were other reasons for fans of the NBA’s arguably most middling organization to wincingly watch that dismantling, even through parted fingers supporting a head that hung a bit lower with each missed Brandon Jennings field goal. The mere occurrence of an NBA playoff game in Milwaukee isn’t exactly a frequent event; the long-languishing franchise is almost annually fighting (and usually failing) to climb to the postseason ladder’s lowest rung, or attempting to reach the rarefied and slightly less doom-thick air of the seventh or sixth seeds. The sixth-seeded Bucks and three-seed Hawks played seven games in the spring of 2010. It’s something.

But that was actually the last time the Bucks made the playoffs, and that memorable series was much different than this year’s. It was a different team, too. Following Jennings’ remarkable rookie season, a deadline deal brought John Salmons—then in his rare “useful” form—to town; the unlikely duo of ancient Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric capably spelled Andrew Bogut after the Aussie center went down with his annual season-ending injury. The improbable Bucks run that followed briefly captivated a city that had been largely indifferent to the team’s existence since Allen, Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell, Ervin “Not Magic” Johnson and rest of the 2000-01 squad fell a game short of winning the right to be destroyed by the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

So maybe Sunday’s game was like a premature wake: a ritual tribute to a team limping towards its predetermined fate, albeit on a national stage. And there was some fun to it, albeit of the muted kind. Almost as exhilarating as a LeBron dunk or the sudden realization that Juwan Howard is technically still in the league/upright is being a party to Mike Tirico desperately trying to fashion something interesting to say about a vacant husk of a team down 3-0 in the series and trailing by 10 points at the time. David Stern made an appearance at the series finale, as did Clay Matthews, whose reception dwarfed that of Stern. Usually the most famous person at a Bucks home game is the opposing team’s star player.

But Milwaukee isn’t fully devoid of star power in its own right; there is, for all the team’s shortcomings, still a reason to watch. Yes, the rest of the Eastern Conference seemed content to place more importance on improving its draft lottery odds than volunteering to be Miami’s first victim; yes, that had a lot to do with this rudderless team led by an interim coach getting even as far as it did. But even this team gave fans some moments, and it may be on its way out. With Jennings, who played his whole season in the shadow of a palpable desire to move on, a restricted free agent and Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick—both of whom arrived in trades—slated for free agency, the discouraging events of four lopsided contests granted at least an opportunity to see these three playing together in Milwaukee for what might be the last time.

Which is maybe not the most exciting thing in the world, admittedly. So maybe focus on the chance to see how less-experienced players fare in the unfamiliar pro sports spotlight cast upon them. Would Larry Sanders’ Eastern Conference-leading blocked shot tally grow in his first playoff series? Would rookie John Henson continue his impressive April in meaningful games against a formidable foe? Could this drubbing help prepare a hopefully better and more experienced Milwaukee team for playoff success next season?

And so, although it carried with it all the predictably of a romantic comedy and all the entertainment value of a Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy, Bucks fans watched. Out of rote ritual, sure, but also with the unlikely outside prayer of a historic upset or the cautious hope that our underdog might at least keep things interesting. But mostly, we watched with a broader hope: that this year’s bump-in-the-road playoff team might someday be something different, and might give us some other way to feel. It was hard to imagine during these four games, but it could happen: someday April will turn to May, with the Bucks advancing and favored. That longer journey, wherever it ends, will have been more rewarding for us all having taken this predictable one, together. Anyway, that’s the hope.


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