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There is never a good time to lose your superstar, but there are better moments than in the very first game of your playoff push. But that was the hand dealt to both the Bucks and Grizzlies in their respective Game 1s as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ja Morant exited their contests early with injuries.
The Greek Freak left Milwaukee’s game against the Heat late in the first quarter after falling hard on a drive. He came back early in the second quarter but didn’t last long, then didn’t return. The team later announced that Antetokounmpo suffered a lower back contusion.
“He just wasn’t moving [well],” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said to reporters after the game. “Didn’t look comfortable, confident. It felt like the right thing.”
Milwaukee relinquished home-court advantage to Miami, 130-117, setting the stage for what would be a monumental first-round upset. According to Shams Charania, the Bucks are optimistic about Antetokounmpo’s availability for Game 2, but nothing is certain at the moment.
Morant left Game 1 of the Lakers-Grizzlies series midway through the fourth quarter after experiencing a similar situation as Antetokounmpo. He met Anthony Davis in mid-air while going for a dunk, bracing his fall with his right hand and immediately paying the price.
The Lakers outscored the Grizzlies following Morant’s removal, 23-11, and stormed to a 1-0 series lead, 128-112. After the final whistle, Morant told media members that x-rays were negative but that he was “in a good bit of pain” and his health for Game 2 is “in jeopardy.”
It’s unclear how much longer the Bucks and Grizz will have to go without their marquee men, but the results after each departed from their Game 1s indicate some serious issues for each if they’re forced to experience extended time without. But who’s in the worse position to lose their superstar player, Milwaukee or Memphis?
The Bucks Without Giannis Antetokounmpo
Considered one of the three favorites for this season’s MVP award, Giannis has put together yet another impressive campaign. The already two-time MVP was the centerpiece to Milwaukee’s title in 2021 and figured to be the driving force behind another Bucks playoff run. Measuring in at 7 feet tall with guard-like skills, he’s virtually impossible to contain offensively and defensively.
The Greek Freak finished fifth in the NBA regular season in points per game (31.1). He has the highest usage percentage of any player in the NBA (38.8) and attempted the most free throws (772) of anyone in the Association in the 2022-23 campaign. He rebounds, he assists, and he scores efficiently. Milwaukee is running more set plays this season rather than going to isos for their best scorers like they tended to do more in seasons past, but they’re still designing a lot of these plays for Giannis, especially with Khris Middleton’s injury-ridden year.
It seems bad to lose Antetokounmpo on offense, but it might be even worse on defense. He is one of the best weak-side defenders in the NBA, with his length and size cutting off passing lanes and his quickness letting him rotate in what feels like an instant. The Bucks also utilize Giannis in tandem with Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis, putting one of them on the opposition’s five to allow Antetokounmpo the freedom to help as necessary around the rim and in the corners. Milwaukee likes to stay at home on shooters and force teams to run into a helping Antetokounmpo or Jrue Holiday. A rotating Jae Crowder doesn’t quite bring the same consequence as Giannis careening across the court.
The Grizzlies Without Ja Morant
Memphis is already without the towers of Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, severely affecting how they handle the interior on both ends of the court. To have Morant disappear from the lineup as well would be a massive blow to an already-depleted roster.
Like much of the modern NBA, the Grizzlies’ offense is all about pace and space – Memphis attempted the fourth-most field goals of any team in the Association this season. There are few players in the NBA who can help a team achieve and succeed in this environment more than Morant. He’s a wizard in mid-air with outstanding vision, able to control his body in ways most of us couldn’t imagine.
The point guard also has one of the highest usage percentages in the league (34.9) and ranked sixth in the NBA regular season in assist percentage (41.1). Obviously, the Grizzlies rely on Morant for scoring, but he’s more important to their distribution and assurance that they get everything they can out of scoring threats like Desmond Bane and Dillion Brooks. The guard’s teammates are connecting on 47.1 percent of their field goals when the pass they receive comes from him.
Who’s the Bigger Loss?
This is a tough question, and the answer depends on how you frame it. The Grizzlies are already without two important players, and to subtract Morant from the equation means that a first-round elimination at the hands of a talented Lakers team is likely. The Bucks have a better shot at getting out of their 0-1 hole against the Heat to survive another round even without Giannis, but you’re talking about perhaps the best all-around player in the entire world for several years running. Milwaukee will not win a championship without Giannis in the lineup. If you’re asking which player makes a larger overall impression on the floor, it’s Antetokounmpo, and by that logic, he would be the bigger loss.
But when considering the immediacy, the answer is Morant. The Grizzlies were already struggling with injuries, and many had circled their series with the Lakers as a likely upset even before Game 1 tipped. The Bucks without Giannis are a stronger team than Memphis sans Morant, and the Grizz were handed a more difficult initial playoff opponent. Without their certified superstar, the Southwest Division champs are dug into a deeper hole than the pride of the Central.
That said, without Giannis helping defensively, Jimmy Butler will probably continue to carve the Bucks apart. Milwaukee cannot feel safe in this series, especially without its Greek giant.
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