MILWAUKEE – A billboard down the street from the Milwaukee Bucks’ nearly completed new arena makes a proclamation in big, bold letters: “The Future is Here.”
The rebuilding process is over. Winning a playoff series could make that message resonate as loudly as a Giannis Antetokounmpo rim-rattling dunk .
“I think it’s crucial,” Bucks President Peter Feigin said about the confluence of the playoffs and new arena. “We’re at a point … we want to go into the new arena for lots of reasons in a sold-out capacity. That would be the way to usher in a new arena and really have demand and a peak.
“Part of that is performance and how successful we are on the court,” Feigin said.
The seventh-seeded Bucks have work to do to climb out of a 2-0 deficit to the second-seeded Boston Celtics. Game 3 is Friday night in Milwaukee.
“We have to protect home court,” guard Jason Terry said after the 14-point loss in Boston on Tuesday.
The Bucks haven’t won a playoff series since a team coached by George Karl reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Back then, Ray Allen was draining 3s, forming a formidable threesome with Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell.
Seventeen seasons later, they’re still trying to get out of the first round.
But there is renewed hope in Milwaukee since a new ownership group led by Wes Edens and Marc Lasry took over four years ago. The Bucks were coming off a 15-win season in 2013-14, a low point for a franchise that had essentially been at or below .500 for years. At the time, a gangly 19-year-old Antetokounmpo was still getting used to NBA life.
The Bucks have been on a slow and steady rise since then, making the playoffs three out of the last four years.
“If you study that, eight, 10, maybe 12 teams in the NBA have done that. I think you put yourself in an above-average class just doing that … Now we focus on how you win in the first round. How do you advance?” general manager Jon Horst said late in the regular season.
Handing the ball to Antetokounmpo helps. The 23-year-old’s athleticism makes him a threat to make the highlight reel at any second.
Whether the future includes a new coach or forward Jabari Parker remains a question. It could depend on how far the Bucks go this postseason.
Veteran assistant Joe Prunty was promoted to replace the fired Jason Kidd in January, leading the team to a 21-16 record following a 23-22 start under Kidd. The Bucks have said that they plan to have a coaching search after the season, with Prunty expected to be a candidate.
Parker returned from the second major knee injury of his four-year career in February, averaging 12.6 points in 31 games. He has struggled so far in the playoffs, scoring just two points in 24 minutes off the bench. Celtics forward Al Horford in particular has been a tough matchup.
The second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft can become a restricted free agent following the season after the two sides could not reach agreement on a long-term extension last year. He has said that hopes to stay, but realizes that the NBA is a business.
Lately, Parker has been frustrated about the lack of playing time. When asked after practice on Thursday how to get more minutes, Parker said: “Be on my coach’s good side. Yeah. Whatever that is, just try to be on the good side.”
Prunty understood Parker’s desire for more minutes.
“That’s not new, and that’s a good thing. We want everybody to be competitive. We want everybody to step on the floor and be assertive with their games,” Prunty said.
The Bucks do have the makings of a good nucleus entering its prime regardless of what happens to Parker.
Khris Middleton averaged a career-high 20.1 points, and provides steady, all-around play. Eric Bledsoe, acquired from Phoenix early in the season, gives the Bucks a spark plug at point guard. Malcolm Brogdon offers solid, two-way productivity.
Horst, a longtime team executive who took over as GM last year, said the Bucks are a team that has “established itself in a consistent way, in that we have a core group of guys that can continue to move forward, continue to build on what we’ve done here in the last couple years.”
For players, the desire to advance in the postseason trumps what’s going on off the floor. But the players do understand the big picture, too, Feigin said.
It’s hard not to ignore the construction next door to the Bradley Center on the new arena that is nearly 90 percent complete. The Bucks are scheduled to start play in their new home in the fall. They moved into a new, state-of-the-art training center across the street from the construction site last summer.
Feigin said the team has sold 1,600 new season tickets between January and the end of March, a number not reached until the end of the summer a year ago. BMO Harris Bank, Johnson Controls and Miller Brewing Co., are among the businesses signed on as corporate partners.
In Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have a telegenic frontman poised to become a league-wide household name for years to come.
“For us, we’ve had this really cool parallelism between off court and on court,” Feigin said. “You’re running into a new arena, you’re running into a new foray to having a superstar in the league and growing around it. The future is here.”
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