What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Mark Medina discusses how mental health and the stresses of being inside the NBA bubble has become an issue players are talking about as the playoffs press on.



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Not much went right on the court for the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Miami Heat.

Their offense wasn’t sharp against a strong defense, their defense wasn’t there against a solid 3-point shooting team, and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s offensive struggles were exacerbated by a sprained right ankle that forced him to miss basically the final three quarters of Game 4 and all of Game 5.

The Heat eliminated the Bucks with a 103-94 victory in Game 5 on Tuesday, a gentleman’s sweep that is as surprising as it is disappointing for Milwaukee, which had championship aspirations.

“The whole group, they left everything they had,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You know it’s tough. They’re trying to do everything they can for each other – moving, playing fast, defending, guarding. You’ve got to do it all. … , they all did what we expected of them. They competed, they stayed together, they played together and we couldn’t get it done.”

The Heat were able to get it done. Six players scored in double figures, led by Miami All-Star Jimmy Butler’s 17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Goran Dragic added 17 points, four rebounds and two assists, and Jae Crowder had 16 points and six rebounds.

Clinging to their playoff lives, the Bucks delivered an admirable effort but just didn’t have enough without their MVP to overcome a balanced Heat team.

Khris Middleton had 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the Bucks, and Donte DiVincenzo, starting in place of Antetokounmpo, had 17 points.

Antetokounmpo participated in some basic pregame warmups with Budenholzer and the training and medical staff watching.

“Ultimately Jon Horst, our GM, and myself, we couldn’t let Giannis go out there,” Budenholzer said. “He’s not ready. He’s not healthy. We can’t put him at risk. Giannis would always play. He wants to be there for his teammates. So really, really hard for Giannis. But I think it was pretty clear from everybody, probably except from his perspective, what needed to happen.”

Miami advances to the conference finals for the first time since 2014 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were with the team. The Heat will play the winner of the Boston-Toronto series, which the Celtics lead 3-2.

Since 1984, the five seed has beaten the one seed four times, and this is the first time it has happened since 2013.

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Milwaukee dominated during the regular season, especially before the NBA suspended the season on March 11 due to COVID-19, and finished with the league’s best record.

But the bubble was not kind to the Bucks. They were 3-5 in seeding games, lost Game 1 to Orlando in the first round and fell into a 3-0 hole in the second round against Miami.

Budenholzer refused to make excuses.

“Well, the 4½-month layoff for our team wasn’t any different than any of the other teams that came here to Orlando to compete and try and be the last team standing,” He said. “We had a heck of a year, through March 11, a lot of good things, a lot of positives and when we had our moments here in Orlando. Ultimately, we weren’t able to get it done. Everybody’s dealing with the same circumstances.”

Antetokounmpo, who is the 2019-20 MVP and likely to win his second MVP award soon, wasn’t sharp offensively. He averaged 21.8 points, 11 assists and five assists in four games against Miami, shooting 50.8% from the field and 21.45 on 3-pointers. And through three games, he was shooting just 45.1% from the field, way below his regular season average of 55.3%.

Beyond the difficult of life in the bubble, the Bucks were hit particularly hard by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just 40 miles south of Milwaukee. They had to reflect and consider what that meant to them. 

After Game 4 of the Orlando series and after the Blake shooting, Bucks guard George Hill said, “We shouldn’t have come to this damn place to be honest.”

Then, the Bucks declined to play Game 5 on Aug. 26, putting the remainder of the NBA’s restart in jeopardy. The league took a few days off as players decided to resume play.

“We feel like the entire league, all the players, our team was on the right side of history. And for our group, it was significant,” Budenholzer said. “But I think it could if all of a sudden we played well and won a bunch of games, it could’ve been our rallying point. That would probably be the question if we won.

“I think both things are overplayed and overstated. You’ve got to play. You’ve got to defend, you’ve got to rebound. You’ve got to take care of the ball. You’ve got to make shots, and you’ve got to fight for social justice. You’ve got to fight for things you believe in.

“Certainly we were in the middle of it. It was significant. It’s just part of life. It could’ve helped. It may have helped us. I know it helped us as humans.”

For a combination of reasons, the Bucks never were the same team in the restart. Their momentum in March didn’t carry over through a 4½-month layoff, and their season is over sooner than expected.

And yet Budenholzer saw the big picture and ended his postgame press conference with a poignant statement.

“What the team stands for and I think the character and the humanity to stand and be on the right side of history like we did, led by George and Sterling (Brown), that was emotional,” Budenholzer said. “And such a great group. Winning is important. We had high expectations starting the season, throughout the season, coming here. You always want to realize those expectations. But the relationships, the character, what this group did, it would be great if you could have both. But if you’re going to choose one, I’d like to be with the guys who are high character and stand for something.”


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