As the Milwaukee Bucks prepare to enter the NBA's post-pandemic Disney enclave, there's no sense in dwelling on how their historic season would have continued to unfold had the coronavirus not brought the world to an abrupt halt. Could the Bucks have added to their gaudy league-leading point differential (+11.2)? To their suffocating (and also league-leading) defensive rating?
That bubble has already burst, says coach Mike Budenholzer.
Yet the extended break did provide a silver lining for the Bucks. Just before the pandemic hit, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered a minor joint capsule sprain in his left knee, landing awkwardly after a dunk attempt in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 6. He did not play again, and the long layoff has enabled him to sufficiently heal without trying to rush back to the lineup too soon.
"It's a huge advantage for us that Giannis will be completely and totally healthy," Budenholzer tells ESPN. "He's in a great place, both mentally and physically.
"Who's to say how things would have gone if we kept on playing? I'm not sure it would be safe to say [Giannis] would have missed a couple of weeks. Could it have been less? Maybe. Could it have been more? Perhaps. We can look back a bit and say, 'Wow, I wonder what would have happened there.'
"But the great thing is he's healthy now. Giannis is so tough, and he heals so quickly, and he would have felt pressure to come back sooner. [The pressure] wouldn't have come from us -- it's all self-induced with Giannis. One of our hardest jobs would have been to hold him back."
The Bucks had meticulously monitored minutes by Antetokounmpo, who dominated play while averaging just under 31 (30.9) minutes a game. Milwaukee's second star, Khris Middleton, averaged just 30 minutes, while other core players, Eric Bledsoe (27.2 minutes) and Brook Lopez (26.6), were well under 30 minutes.
The NBA playoffs have long been a war of attrition, and by throttling teams without putting too much wear and tear on their top players, the Bucks were poised to enjoy a significant advantage had the season proceeded in its usual fashion, especially when compared to league leaders in minutes played -- Damian Lillard (36.9), James Harden (36.7) and Kyle Lowry (36.6). That benefit fizzled once play was suspended and every team had the opportunity to rest and recover.
But Budenholzer says he isn't dwelling on advantages lost and insists he's just grateful basketball appears ready to resume after more than three months of turmoil.
"If they put us on the moon, and we didn't have home-court advantage, considering everything that has gone on in the country, it's a small price to pay," Budenholzer says. "So, we won't have a chance for a great Game 7 at Fiserv Forum. We're not going to sit and cry about it.
"At least we've been given the chance to play. It would have been so much worse if this team never had a chance to see how far it can go, if it never had a chance to get to the playoffs."
Budenholzer says he's been so focused on preparing his team to return to action that he hadn't considered that with a stoppage stretching beyond three months, stars such as LeBron James, who is 35 years old, and Kawhi Leonard, who continues to manage his work load because of chronic physical issues, also will have capitalized on the time off.
"I hadn't thought of that until you brought it up," Budenholzer says. "I don't think in those terms. I can't worry either way if all of a sudden other great players are rested, too, and we've lost that advantage. If Kawhi or LeBron are a little fresher than they would have been, then that's our challenge. If we want to win the championship, we've got to beat everyone. And our guys are ready to do that."
Milwaukee was the favorite to come out of the East in the 2019 postseason but was eliminated by the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors in the conference finals. The Bucks held a 2-0 series lead before dropping the final four games. The Raptors packed in their defense and dared players such as Giannis and Bledsoe, who shot 23.6% from the 3-point line in the 2019 playoffs, to beat them from the perimeter. It's unlikely teams will alter its strategy in 2020, placing the spotlight squarely on Bledsoe to shake off his playoff woes.
"Bled is a little underappreciated on our team," Budenholzer says. "And that includes the postseason. He's had a really good year for us. He's strong, and he's confident, along with the rest of our guys.
"Sure, we've talked about what happened last season. We haven't run from it, whether it was watching something on film, or going over what we could have done differently. That's all of us, not just Bled. It's Giannis, it's Khris [Middleton], it's me.
"You look at the film and you think about ways you can be more creative offensively. You look back at some defensive schemes and think about how you would have tweaked them. But we've learned from it and moved on. I sleep pretty good at night. So do our players."