On early Tuesday afternoon, Fred VanVleet was demoralized. The Raptors point guard addressed the media but was in no mood to discuss his team’s Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Celtics.
All VanVleet wanted to talk about was the shooting last Sunday in Kenosha, Wis., of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police as they attempted to detain him after he allegedly violated a restraining order.
NBA players spent subsequent days watching the video of Blake being shot, and they were horrified and angry, wondering if their purpose of playing in the bubble, whether the “Black Lives Matter” on the floor, slogans on the jerseys, and media sessions imploring justice for Breonna Taylor and encouraging young people to register to vote had any impact.
They had just seen another Black man shot by police. Also on Tuesday, Boston guard Marcus Smart acknowledged there had been discussions between the Celtics and Raptors about boycotting Game 1 on Thursday. Smart offered no specifics.
The teams continued to discuss a boycott, and a day later, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum acknowledged that not playing the next day was a possibility. The players felt they were only being used for entertainment purposes, that the social justice gestures made over the past six weeks carried little significance.
The talks of a boycott were going to continue with the Celtics and Raptors on Wednesday evening, but something surprising occurred a few hours after Tatum’s interview. The Bucks, who play just an hour from Kenosha, showed up to the arena for their Game 5 against the Magic, apparently ready to play.
Bucks guard George Hill, who publicly wondered Monday why players were still in the bubble when Blacks were still being shot in their communities, decided as his teammates dressed that he did not want to play. Players generally arrive at the arena 90 minutes to two hours prior to a game, and players began hitting the floor to work out.
But the Bucks never arrived on the floor for the first set of warm-ups. They remained in their locker room, and Hill urged his teammates to boycott. The Magic were unaware and arrived to warm up. When they had not seen one Bucks player with three minutes left before tipoff, they got the hint and returned to their locker room.
Both teams waited for the league’s reaction, and when the Bucks relayed they had no intention of playing, the Magic headed back to their hotel. For the first time in NBA history, a playoff game was boycotted.
The Bucks departed for their hotel about two hours later after a telephone discussion with the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, demanding justice for Blake and increased police reform.
After hearing about the Bucks’ protest, the Thunder and Rockets, who were scheduled to play later, knew it would be defiant to play, so they decided to bolt. The Lakers and Trail Blazers, who were scheduled to play after the Bucks and Magic, got the alert and decided not to show up.
That night, an emergency players’ meeting was called to discuss the next move. Some were angry at the Bucks for boycotting without a long-term plan. Others were ready to leave the bubble because they missed their families and hometowns. Others warned of the repercussions of walking out on the season, and how it could irrevocably damage the relationship between the owners and players.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown told Bucks players they were fine to boycott, but he also cautioned about boycotting for the right reasons. “If we go home, are we going to be on the front lines?” he said. “If not, then we might as well stay and play.”
The players also talked with Blake’s family. Heat veteran Andre Iguodala stressed that the players remain united. Players from the Lakers and Clippers appeared ready to walk out and leave the bubble. But after three hours, the players decided to break into groups and convene the next morning.
Former NBA players such as Dwyane Wade offered suggestions. Unity was the main theme. Several teammates convinced LeBron James that younger players couldn’t take the financial hit of missing potentially 35 percent of their salary.
On Thursday morning, the players met again, with the consensus they would resume the season if conversations with owners created a plan to make more of an impact in communities. The owners agreed to make every NBA arena a voting center for the November election.
Feelings are still simmering, but the players will welcome their families, who will be released from quarantine, this weekend. That should help them endure the rest of the playoffs. And then the real work in communities will begin.
A NEEDED TIMEOUT
Westbrook: More than basketball
What many NBA players are acknowledging is they are growing weary; games every other day and practices on off days; the same hotel room, family unable to visit, and activities limited besides golfing and fishing.
They were feeling hopeless and ineffective, and while the reasons for this past week’s boycott vary, it was apparent that a respite was needed.
“I’m excited to play. But I’m more excited that we’re playing for a cause, playing that we’re in agreeance to make sure there’s action,” Rockets guard Russell Westbrook said. “For guys like myself, and I’m pretty sure that for guys around the league ... we play and we have our names on the back of our jerseys and we have our messages on the back of our jerseys and that means something. It’s not something that we put on there for fun and for kicks and giggles, but it means something.
“It’s actually something that I personally take action and responsibility in being an African-American athlete, a Black man in this society having a son of my own and having other kids that look up to me from my neighborhood around the world — that’s what I’m excited about moving forward. Obviously, basketball is our platform, it’s something I love and embrace to do, but to me that is the most important reason why we’re even coming back to play, because if there wasn’t any agreeance or action moving toward some of the things we talked about as players and me personally, I wouldn’t be playing.”
Westbrook said it was critical to remain in Orlando with a larger purpose than just winning a championship. There’s a higher calling to serve communities and a platform to express unhappiness with the current state of racial affairs in the country.
“I don’t speak for anybody else and how they feel, but for me personally it’s something I think about daily. Even before I came into the bubble, since I’ve been in the NBA, since I’ve grew up in the city of Los Angeles and finding ways to give back,” Westbrook said. “I’ve always thought about legacy and figuring out a way ... ’What does your legacy mean, is it just about basketball,’ and I don’t think mine is about basketball. I believe it’s about giving back, and not just giving back but impacting and inspiring and finding ways to be able to do what’s right. In today’s day in society, our Black communities have been hurting for many years.
“And I feel like I have the platform. I feel like I have the ability to reach certain people and I feel like it’s my duty to make sure that our Black people are heard, our Black men are heard, our underserved communities are heard, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens.”
Loss to Magic was wake-up call
The Bucks were playing their best basketball of the season when the pandemic hit. They were about to host the Celtics in a March 12 showdown before the season was interrupted.
Before this past week’s boycott, their journey in the bubble was bumpy on the floor. After holding on to a seeding win over the Celtics, the Bucks lost to the Nets in one of the bigger upsets in recent years.
The Bucks then opened the playoffs by losing Game 1 to the Magic, before recovering to win the next four. There are concerns about the Bucks, especially with a possible upcoming series with the Heat, who swept the Pacers and may be playing the best of any team in the bubble.
The pressure is on with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency next summer. This may be Milwaukee’s best chance to win its first NBA title in 49 years, and if it doesn’t, Antetokounmpo may be looking for his next team.
He’s not thinking about that right now. The unquestioned leader of the team with the NBA’s best record, he is taking any loss personally.
“I think we’re hard on ourselves, but basketball is not what you did in the past or what you’re going to do in the future,” he said. “It’s what you’re doing right now. That’s my whole mindset my whole life, and right now we’re playing good and that’s what I’m going to leave it to, and hopefully we can go on to the next game.”
It’s not that the Bucks lost chemistry during the pandemic as much as they lost momentum. So did other elite teams such as the Lakers and Clippers. Each suffered surprising playoff game losses, but first-round losses are not uncommon for championship-caliber teams. If you recall, the Hawks pushed the Celtics to seven games in 2008.
“Obviously, it was amazing what we did before the break and that gave us the No. 1 seed in the East, but that’s in the past. Gotta move on,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, we have high confidence about ourselves. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our team. We believe in our game plan. We believe in our coach. But we’re not a champion. There’s going to be a lot of people out there saying that we might go to the Finals, but if you don’t go out there and take it or go out there with that chip on your shoulder and go out there and play every second, it’s not going to happen.
“There’s no way to work around this, so for me and for the team, we’re going to go out there and play. We’re not going to play like the favorites. We’re going to play like the underdog. We decided to do that and be us from the second game against Orlando and from now on, and that’s who we are going to be until the end. Until then, we’re going to be ourselves.”
The Eastern Conference has turned treacherous. The Raptors and Celtics are playing well and will battle beginning Sunday. The Heat, finally healthy, are a dark horse to reach the Finals.
The Bucks will be tested, but they remain a close team, evidenced by their decision to boycott Game 5 of the series against Orlando on Wednesday. Antetokounmpo declared the Bucks ready for the challenge of getting to the next level after being upended in the conference finals last season by the Raptors.
“We help one another. We check one another. We try to pick one another up,” Antetokounmpo said. “We spend time with one another. We’re friends. On the court we’re teammates, but off the court we’re friends. There’s a lot of teams out there they’re teammates, but when you go off the court they live their own lives, they do their own thing. No matter what’s going on in the game, if I’m not playing well, somebody’s going to talk to me, somebody is going to try to pick me up. We’re going to help one another. It’s not going to change. Win or lose, we’re going to do it together.”
Fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, who has had great success against the Celtics in recent playoff series, said the opening loss to the Magic served as an alert. The Bucks are beatable when they slip on defense and rely too heavily on Antetokounmpo on offense.
“I think you have to take a step up as far as your level of play. Guys go hard. Win or go home. We can’t go through the motions like Game 1,” Middleton said. “We have to go out there and prove we deserve to keep on playing each night. I think we’re still trying to find it. Two games in a row we’ve had spurts during the seeding games. Our job now is to sustain that and keep it going.”
Coach Mike Budenholzer did not give his team a break even when it lost Arlington native Pat Connaughton and point guard Eric Bledsoe early in seeding games with injuries. Those two are back, giving the Bucks a reliable 3-point shooter and staunch defender.
But the Bucks fully realized they were playing subpar basketball before the past week, perhaps a sign of overconfidence.
“We certainly don’t want to ever not have that edge, not have that physicality,” Budenholzer said. “All of us feed off of Giannis and his leadership and his energy and his competitiveness. When he’s sharing with all of us, it’s great. He’s our leader.
“I think there’s a lot of confidence, a lot of belief. I think there’s a grace period and the belief in the team and the confidence in the team. I don’t think players or coaches felt like we were playing the way we needed to. With or without Bled and Pat and with or without time, I think we have high expectations of ourselves. I don’t think we were very happy with how we were playing.”
The Pacers signed Nate McMillan to a one-year contract extension 2½ weeks ago and then fired him on Tuesday. McMillan was 3-16 in the postseason, including sweeps the past two years by the Celtics and Heat. But McMillan never had a healthy roster in those seasons — Victor Oladipo missed last postseason and Domantas Sabonis this postseason, while Oladipo played this most recent playoff series at about 75 percent. It seems GM Kevin Pritchard, who also worked with McMillan in Portland, wants a faster pace on offense and a more exciting brand of basketball. But the franchise needs more out of center Myles Turner, once viewed as a rising star. But he was outplayed by Miami’s Bam Adebayo in the first-round series. And the Pacers, not a popular free agent destination, have failed recently in the draft. Rookie first-round pick Goga Bitadze did not appear in the playoffs, and 2017 first-rounder T.J. Leaf has averaged 3.3 points per game in his first three seasons. So, you pair injuries with below-average draft picks and lack of post presence and you have another first-round elimination. The consensus was the Pacers’ downfall was not all on McMillan, although his style is defensive-minded and relies on dominant center play. It was probably time for the sides to part ways, but 2½ weeks after a contract extension is an unsavory look for the organization.