The Bucks' season ended on Thursday night with a parting image Milwaukee would rather suppress. The Bulls opened up an 18-point lead in the first quarter of Game 6, and finished the job with 54-point victory that will go down as the most lopsided series-clinching win the NBA has ever seen.
Losing in the first round is a familiar check point for Bucks fans. Nine of Milwaukee's last 10 playoff appearances have ended in round one. In 26 years, Milwaukee has a grand total of two series wins, both coming in 2001 when they made the Eastern Conference Finals.
And the Bucks have mostly seemed content with that result. Under former owner Herb Kohl, Milwaukee made it a mission to put the best team on the floor they could and chase the playoffs every year. The Bucks refused to tank, even if that meant trading the No. 10 pick for a 33-year-old Stephen Jackson.
That's why Thursday night's season finale felt different. After decades of chasing mediocrity, the Bucks are actually building something. That something is energizing, frantic and unknowable, but the shear potential of it is undeniably exciting.
The Bucks started their transformation way before these playoffs. After injuries sabotaged last season's race for the No. 8 seed, Milwaukee came off a 15-win season with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Milwaukee needed a running mate for then 19-year-old forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and tabbed Duke's Jabari Parker as that man.
The intrigue of youthful talent was enough to get Jason Kidd to look at his dead-grass roster in Brooklyn and realize there were greener pastures in Milwaukee. Kidd's move was framed as a failed power play, but in hindsight it sure looks like he saw Parker and Antetokounmpo as a pair of long, multi-dimensional forwards to build around.
Things didn't develop exactly as Milwaukee hoped this year. Parker tore his ACL 25 games into his career and Larry Sanders, the team's enigmatic but effective 26-year-old rim-protecting center, decided to walk away from basketball in the first year of a $44 million contract because of bouts of anxiety and depression. That should have been enough to sink the team after a surprisingly competent start out of the gates, but the Bucks wouldn't let it happen.
Instead, Kidd helped Milwaukee jump from No. 29 to No. 2 in defensive efficiency in just one year. He employed an ultra-aggressive defense that blitzed pick and roll ball handlers while still overloading the strong side and bet that a team of long, young athletes would be quick enough to recover. For the most part, it worked.
It certainly worked well enough to help the team survive trading their leading scorer, Brandon Knight, ahead of the postseason. In a contract year, he'd become a fan favorite and just the type of good enough player the old Bucks would've kept around. Instead, Milwaukee ditched Knight and clung to their new defensive identity. Growing pains resulted once Michael Carter-Williams arrived, but the Bucks still posted the highest turnover rate in the NBA this year and started to develop into a transition terror going the other way.
That begins with Antetokounmpo. As a rookie, Giannis was like a new puppy. He carried home food from the cafeteria. He went on the unfathomable adventure of essentially hitchhiking his way to a game. He tweeted about the magic of smoothies:
I just taste for the first time a smothie..MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA— GiannisAntetokounmpo (@G_ante34) January 20, 2014
In his second year, Kidd helped him develop his bite. He experimented with Giannis at point guard in the summer league so he would feel more comfortable pushing the ball in transition. It looks like it's working: He scored 300 points on the break this year, which put him No. 13 in the NBA.
It was a year that saw Giannis double his scoring average, up his true shooting percentage and rebound rate and get his driver's license. Even opposing players can't believe he's just 20 years old.
In theory, Parker is a perfect complement for Antetokounmpo. Giannis' speed and length should help him excel defensively, an area that's always been a weakness in Parker's game. On the flip side, Giannis is still a raw jumble of arms and athleticism, whereas Parker has always been noted for his offensive polish. Parker showed an ability to score from all three levels at Duke and projects as the go-to scorer Milwaukee never had a chance to lure in free agency.
Think of Khris Middleton as the glue that holds it all together. The 23-year-old went from a second rounder out of Texas A&M to what looks like a prototypical 3-and-D player for the new era. He was No. 8 in defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus and hit over 40 percent of three-pointers this year. If Milwaukee retains him, putting the Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Parker trio on the floor will give opposing teams nowhere to run and nowhere to hide on either end of the court.
As the lopsided loss showed last night, the Bucks are not a finished product just yet. Is Carter-Williams the point guard protégé Kidd has been seeking, or just the middling player who scored 73 points on 78 shots in the series against Chicago? Is 24-year-old center John Henson scratching the surface as a shot blocker, or will his lack of shooting range -- and inability to draw or make free throws -- continue to cramp the Bucks' offense?
The Bucks still need to find a big man to develop with their young core long-term. They need to find more shooting to compensate for Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams. They need to figure out if Carter-Wiliams is even a long-term answer at point guard at all. No one is casting the Bucks' 2019 championship rings just yet.
But there's no denying the future is bright, something we haven't said about the Bucks since the glory days of the 80s. With a 26-win improvement, an incredible defensive turnaround and several long-term building blocks already in place, a first round playoff loss won't meet expectations for long.