Milwaukee is on the verge of another first-round exit, though this time bad luck is to blame

This time a year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were licking their wounds and contemplating a path forward after a historic first-round collapse against the Miami Heat, in which they became the sixth team to lose to a No. 8 seed in the first round since the league adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984.

Two head coaches, a blockbuster trade and another season later, they are staring another first-round exit in the face. Despite a valiant effort on Sunday night in Indianapolis, they ran out of steam in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and fell to the Indiana Pacers, 126-113.

As the Bucks return home, they do so down 3-1 — a deficit they have never overcome in franchise history. Considering the circumstances, it’s unlikely this will be the first time. While last season came to an early end because the players and coaching staff failed in the biggest moments, the Bucks are being done in by sheer bad luck this time around.

A missing MVP
In the third quarter of the Bucks’ matchup with the Boston Celtics on April 9, the team was cruising to one of its best wins of the season when Giannis Antetokounmpo suddenly collapsed and grabbed for his lower left leg. The initial fear emanating from him, his teammates and the entire arena that night was palpable. Non-contact leg injuries are among the worst sights on a basketball court.

Thankfully, the MRI on his leg revealed no Achilles tendon damage, but it did indicate a calf strain that has kept him off the court ever since. It remains unclear when, or if, he’s going to play again this season, and that answer might depend on whether the Bucks can salvage a victory on Tuesday night in Game 5.

Antetokounmpo’s workout on Sunday morning “went well,” Bucks head coach Doc Rivers said. “He moved, He shot. He’s running now with no resistance, so those are all very good signs.” Rivers added that he was “optimistic” that Antetokounmpo would see the floor, but offered no specific timeline.

Down goes Lillard
In the lead up to this series, Damian Lillard was not on the practice court with the Bucks. Maintenance was the explanation. Lillard had been battling a few nagging injuries — adductor, groin, Achilles — and the team wanted to be cautious with Antetokounmpo already sidelined. It was not until April 19, two days before Game 1, that Lillard was able to go through a full practice. He admitted he was “concerned” about some of the problems at first, but said the time off had him feeling great.

That was evident in the first half of Game 1, as he poured in a record-setting 35 points to get the Bucks off to a winning start in the series. The Pacers’ relentless pressure seemed to wear him down after that, however, and in Game 3 everything all fell apart. He twisted his knee in an awkward collision with Pascal Siakam in the first quarter, then re-aggravated his Achilles injury in the closing seconds of regulation.

Lillard said during his post-game press conference on Friday that his “plan” was to play in Game 4, but his Achilles would not cooperate. He didn’t do anything on the court on Sunday and the team soon announced he was out for the game. Rivers would not rule him out for the series, but much like Antetokounmpo he may need his teammates to extend the season if he wants to get back out there.

Middleton’s injury woes continue
A few minutes into the first quarter of Game 2 earlier this week, Khris Middleton dribbled to his left off a screen and was fouled by Siakam. In the process, he stepped on Siakam’s foot and rolled his right ankle. A few minutes later, he hobbled back to the locker room, though he eventually returned after getting his ankle re-taped. He was ineffective from that point on, finishing with 15 points on 14 shots in the Bucks’ loss.

Middleton didn’t practice in between Games 2 and 3, and there was concern he wouldn’t be able to go on Friday night. In the end, he suited up and played one of the best games of his career on a hobbled ankle, though it ended in defeat. That would not be the last of his ankle problems.

Early in the third quarter of Game 4, Myles Turner landed on his leg after a layup attempt and he tweaked his left ankle. Again, he stayed in the game, but shot 4-of-12 following that incident.

It appears Middleton will soldier on, but to what effect remains to be seen. Expecting another performance like Game 3 is asking a lot on two bad ankles. The Bucks may need him to summon one, however, if they want to keep playing beyond Tuesday night.

Assuming the Bucks lose this series, general manager Jon Horst and the rest of the front office will face some tough questions about this season and their role in the outcome. There was plenty they could, and should, have done differently over the past year. The devastating rash of injuries that cost the team its two best players at the most important moment, however, will not be on the list of mistakes.

As the Bucks know better than most franchises, sometimes you just have bad luck.

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