The Eastern Conference favorites to win the NBA Championship are now facing elimination; who’s to blame?

In Game 1, they lost by 11. In Game 2, by a single bucket. Their response in Game 3? Get blown out by 15. After barely surviving Game 4 in overtime, the Milwaukee Bucks have gone from favorites to underdogs. How did this happen?

The Bucks were looked at throughout the entire regular season as the superior squad of the East. They earned that spot by claiming the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 56-17 record, which also led the entire NBA in the regular season. Their dominance placed them in a glaring spotlight coming into the playoffs.

After a relatively easy 4-1 series win against the Orlando Magic in the first round, the Bucks turned their attention to their next opponent, the Miami Heat, who were seeded fifth in the East. Fans and players alike were shocked to see Miami win the first three games in the best-of-seven series, with the Bucks now on the ropes.

All eyes are on Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player and star of the Bucks. Antetokounmpo averaged 30.6 points throughout his five games against the Magic. In the four games against the Heat, he has only averaged 21.8 points per game. His stats have also gone down in terms of rebounding (16 rebounds per game against ORL compared to 11 against MIA).

To make things even worse for Milwaukee, he walked out of Game 4 in the second quarter with an ankle injury and failed to return to the court. The status of whether Antetokounmpo will return in Game 5 against the Heat is unknown.

That’s not to say Antetokounmpo is the entirety of the Bucks’ offense. After he left the most recent game with a sprained ankle, his teammates delivered as Khris Middleton scored 36 points, including the last points of the game. Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe also shined, as collectively they scored 28 points and grabbed 15 boards in the contest. These efforts led to a three-point win over the Heat in overtime on Sunday. While a close call, the Bucks proved that offensively they are more than just Antetokounmpo.

With the former MVP on the decline, many might blame him for causing his team to lose the series. However, what many don’t seem to realize is how impressive the Heat have been defensively. Miami has had the fifth-best team defense out of the 16 teams who have participated in the playoffs, holding a 106.7 defensive ranking throughout the tournament. It should not come as a surprise to viewers that they’re holding their own against the Milwaukee offense, which ranks sixth out of the eight remaining teams with 113 points per game.

But viewers are surprised nonetheless. Why is this when the numbers are showing that the Heat have been exceeding expectations all postseason, while the Bucks have been underperforming? 

Many have questioned how the coronavirus pandemic would affect teams heading into the bubble. It is still hard to determine if this is a deciding factor or not, but the win-loss record of these teams since the NBA returned in late July could be telling. Miami has held a 10-6 record along with a brilliant 7-1 difference in the playoffs. Milwaukee has gone 8-9, and they are 3-7 in their last ten contests. 

Sure, the Heat performed well in the regular season, but maybe this transition into the bubble has given them more time to mentally prepare for the playoffs with the possibility of facing a juggernaut like the Bucks. They came back more poised and dominant, and it’s reflected in their performance.

The series is far from over. Game 5 will be played tonight at 3:30 p.m. And while we still don’t know whether Giannis will play or not, perhaps Middleton and company will respond with another strong offensive outing. Or, perhaps the Bucks’ journey of acquiring their first championship since 1971 will come to a dissatisfying ending after a season-ending loss.

Either way, two things have been made clear throughout the first four games of the series. One, the Heat were underlooked heading into this playoff stretch. They have exceptional talent on that roster that could punch their ticket to the Final for the first time since LeBron James’ tenure in Miami. Two, while the Bucks’ offense can run without Giannis when he is underachieving, they are not going to be able to win 16 games when it is playoff time. Will Game 5 change either of these narratives? We shall see.