If NBA games were scored on momentum, the Bucks had Friday night's clash with the New York Knicks won before the opening tip.
Milwaukee went in with that week's "Sports Illustrated" cover-guy in their starting five and all manner of fawning national media on its side. Wednesday night's last-second Big Apple win reminded ESPN and the digital media that our city does, indeed, still have a pro basketball franchise, one that's flecked with all kinds of great young talent.
The Bucks sprinted to a big, fat early lead Friday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center and were up by eight at the half. A third-quarter Milwaukee swoon ensued but then, the Bucks once again took control, surging to a 13 point advantage at the end of three.
As Milwaukee is finding out all too often this season, NBA games go 48 minutes, not 24 or 36.
Sure, nothing is more uncertain that a lead in pro basketball. No advantage is ever safe, especially now that the league is in full embrace of the three point shot. It took a while for the tray to catch on but hoo-boy, has it ever now.
That big Bucks advantage went away quick in those final minutes Friday night as the Knicks outscored them 35-15. "Going into the fourth we had control of the game," Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said afterward, "and our engines kind of turned off." Giannis Antetokounmpo served up this take on his team's final 24 minutes of play: "After halftime we relaxed and didn't move the ball real well. We were taking tough shots and weren't playing our game. We had a chance to put them away but we didn't."
He may be young, but he's very observant.
Then there are the fans, who've caught this act before at home. The sting of seeing the Bucks swallowing a 20 point halftime lead December 9 to an Atlanta Hawks team that looked dead in the water remains for those who watched the epic collapse in person (wanna see my ticket stub? The woman who refreshes my beer reminds of that game EVERY night I've been back since).
Long-suffering Milwaukee fans received a late Christmas present this week. They got to bask in the glow of rare national attention for a team that wasn't bad enough over the years to be laughable but poor enough to be irrelevant. Giannis getting his due after that clutch Knick-busting shot in New York Wednesday night turned into a Bucks love-in the day after. Jabari Parker and rookie Malcolm Brogdon are the pieces Kidd needs around his burgeoning Greek star to make Milwaukee a playoff team. Veteran leadership that was lacking last year after a couple of ill-advised trades that sent NBA gray beards like Zaza Pachulia packing is back in the persons of Jason Terry and seldom-used Steve Novak.
The difference between these young Bucks being occasionally buzz-worthy and becoming a team no one wants to play: doing it right for 48 minutes, no matter what the scoreboard says at the half or after three. That means moving the ball, taking smart shots, playing defense (especially around the arc where they still seem to get religiously burned) and treating the ball right down the stretch (Giannis got stripped in the final moments of Friday night's loss--not the kind of thing that can happen to an S-I cover guy).
Even great teams blow big leads. The same night the Bucks spit the bit against the Knicks the vaunted Golden State Warriors were doing same against Memphis, having led the Griz by 24 at one point and 19 heading into the fourth. So yeah, it happens. It just can't be a trend, and when it happens it has to become a learning moment, a game the team uses as a don't-let-this-happen-again touchstone. The NBA game is one of streaks, of hot/cold stretches that determine games and allow clubs to stack the wins that bolster postseason chances and seeding.
The Bucks wake up a game over .500 the day after what happened against the Knicks. Giannis is poised to be an All-Star starter, and the era of Milwaukee NBA good-feeling lingers even after a nationally televised setback that needn't have happened. The Bucks are relevant again, the BMO Harris Bradley Center is hoppin' and a ticket to a game is more than just an excuse to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of the Turner Hall fish fry again. Now it's on Kidd and his staff to turn the corner with the talent on hand, to make the Bucks a team that consistently plays up to the level of the competition every night, not one that shows up when facing the likes of the Cavs and Warriors. Now is when Milwaukee has to remember a big lead means it's time to put the boot on the opponent's net, and not, as Antetokounmpo put it, have the engines turn off.
When that happens consistently, weeks like Bucks fans just celebrated won't be the exception--they become the norm, with all the good things that follow.