MILWAUKEE — One by one, the Milwaukee Bucks players pulled into the garage in the team’s practice facility. It was Thursday, less than 12 hours removed from their series-clinching Game 5 victory over the Boston Celtics, and Mike Budenholzer had given the team the day off. Yet there was Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pat Connaughton and Brook Lopez. Sterling Brown, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and the others showed up at the gym, too.
At that point, they had no idea whom their Eastern Conference finals opponent would be, and they wouldn’t know until the Toronto Raptors‘ dramatic Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. Still, they were determined to take advantage of the time off.
When Game 1 of the conference finals tips off Wednesday, the Bucks will have had six days off, tying the longest break of any team in the 2019 postseason. Players and coaches spent the week doing a precarious tango: relax enough to be fresh for the next series, but don’t become too comfortable and risk losing their competitive edge.
The Bucks understand the pitfalls of trying to snap back to game speed after an extended break. After sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, Milwaukee enjoyed five days of leisure. Then, in Game 1 against the Celtics, who were coming off a six-day break, Milwaukee suffered an embarrassing 22-point loss at home. The Bucks won the next four to eliminate the Celtics, but losing Game 1 at home could be a dangerous position against Toronto.
“Against Boston, you can go down 1-0 and still be fine,” Antetokounmpo said Tuesday. “But against Toronto it’s hard to be in that spot when you lose the first game at your home.”
Many players described that first game against Boston as a “punch in the mouth.” George Hill preferred to describe it as soiling the bed. Hill couldn’t help but get cheeky when asked how the Bucks will avoid that against the Raptors.
“First, we will wear a diaper,” Hill said, cracking a smile. “But seriously, I think that first game against Boston woke us up. We are staying active. We aren’t just sitting here waiting. Last time, we took advantage of the rest, but this time we’re being smart to not overrest.”
In the days before the Bucks’ first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2001, there was film to be watched, naps to be taken, and extra workouts to fit in. The Bucks held three practices between the end of the Boston series and the beginning of the conference finals. They had one day of individual workouts, during which players spent time doing drills with assistant coaches.
Budenholzer pored over film of Bucks games, Raptors games and — before Sunday — 76ers games.
“To have five, six or seven days [off] has a lot of positives,” Budenholzer said Saturday. “And there’s a lot of things that make you wish you played today.”
Antetokounmpo received extra treatment for aches and pains. He had tweaked his right ankle — which he had originally sprained earlier this season — in Game 5 against the Celtics. In the locker room after that game, he contemplated changing his shoes for the next series. Antetokounmpo said Tuesday that after a few days of rest, his ankle is no longer bothering him.
The down time allowed players to mix in a little bit of relaxation, too. Nikola Mirotic, Hill and Bledsoe planned to spend time with their young children. Hill was hoping to fit in a hunting trip. Connaughton hosted family from out of town. The team was given Mother’s Day off, while the Raptors needed the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history to advance.
The coaching staff watched together as Kawhi Leonard hit the historic shot. Malcolm Brogdon, Tim Frazierand Bonzie Colson watched from a bar across the street from Fiserv Forum as the ball bounced on the rim four times before easing through the net. Bledsoe, who took his wife out to dinner for Mother’s Day, was watching on his phone but missed the ending.
“Man, my phone died,” Bledsoe said. “So I didn’t see [Leonard’s shot]. My wife had to give me her phone.”
Once the matchup was set, the final 2½ days dragged. On Monday, the Bucks held a longer-than-usual practice and film session. That night, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Hill and Bledsoe returned to the gym.
“Nobody talked,” Antetokounmpo said. “Everybody showed up because everybody knows how — I’m not gonna say high-stakes, but how — important it is to set the tone in Game 1. And that’s really good; that’s what a special team, that’s what a great team does.”