Bucks get ‘a good burn’ against Thunder as playoff position, opponent still undetermined

OKLAHOMA CITY — On Friday, before the Milwaukee Bucks took the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder in their penultimate game of the 2023-24 regular season, head coach Doc Rivers laid out the remainder of the team’s season in relatively simple terms.

“Listen, we’d love to get the two seed — we have to win a game,” Rivers said. “So, that’s at play. But let’s just say Sunday, if Dame wasn’t right, we’re not gonna play him. Otherwise, something happens there and you’re in a lot of trouble. We want the two seed. There’s no doubt about it. But we want to be healthy, too.”

So, with Damian Lillard sidelined for Friday’s game with a left adductor strain and Giannis Antetokounmpo still out with a left soleus strain, the Bucks tried to get their win to secure the No. 2 seed without their two best players. At the start of the day, Khris Middleton (left ankle injury management, Brook Lopez (rest) and Bobby Portis (rest) also found themselves on the injury report, but all three ended up playing on Friday night.

With 8:29 left in the second quarter, Middleton capped off a 7-0 run for the Bucks with a floater off the glass out of a pseudo-post-up to bring them within four points of the Thunder and trigger a timeout from Thunder coach Mark Daigneault, but that was the last stretch of the game that seemed to suggest the Bucks could beat the Thunder on Friday.

From that point, the Thunder closed the first half on a 22-9 run and took a 17-point halftime lead before ultimately beating the Bucks, 125-107, to move into a three-way tie atop the Western Conference with one game left for every team around the league on Sunday.

“I thought early on we were pretty good,” Rivers said after the game. “I thought second quarter, too many guys were making plays that shouldn’t try to make plays and we turned the ball over.

“First quarter, I thought the ball movement (was good), we played downhill a lot, we played through our bigs, we moved the ball, it was good basketball. Then after that, it looked like guys, everybody was trying to make plays and it’s just not who most of them were. But, you know, we got a good burn. We loved to have won, but we wanted to burn some minutes and we did that.”

Without their two primary ballhandlers, the Bucks struggled to take care of the ball and committed 12 turnovers in the first half. That was just too much for the Bucks to overcome against one of the Western Conference’s best teams. Middleton scored 11 points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to put a brief scare into the Thunder, but Rivers moved to his team’s deep reserves with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Middleton ended the night with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 23 minutes to lead the Bucks. Brook Lopez added 18 points as well on 7-of-14 shooting, while Malik Beasley scored 17 points, which included hitting three of his five attempts from the 3-point line, but after the first 16 minutes, the Bucks never really threatened the Thunder.

With the loss, the Bucks now turn their attention to Sunday.

On Sunday, just like Friday, all 30 teams will be in competition after a Saturday off-day to keep teams aligned and allow all 30 to play at either 12:00 p.m. CT or 2:30 p.m. CT.

The Bucks are currently 49-32 on the season. They have the same record as the New York Knicks, but the Bucks have the tiebreaker so, at the moment, they’re the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference at the moment. Owning the tiebreaker with the Knicks (49-32) means the Bucks could make their playoff seeding incredibly easy to figure out if they win on Sunday.

If the Bucks beat the Orlando Magic on Sunday, the Bucks will be the No. 2 seed.

“Gotta win it, simple as that,” Middleton said of Sunday’s game. “We came in trying to win this game, even though we were shorthanded. It’s the same on Sunday — try to win.”

If the Bucks lose, however, then things become significantly more confusing and they open themselves up to a series of different events that could affect where they end up in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Losing would not only leave the Bucks susceptible to falling to the No. 3 seed, they could fall all the way to No. 4 because of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers (48-33) are one game behind the Bucks, but own the tiebreaker because of their division record.

If the Bucks lose, here are the various outcomes that could occur:

  • If the Knicks and Cavaliers both lose as well, the Bucks remain the No. 2 seed.
  • If the Knicks win and the Cavaliers lose, the Bucks fall to the No. 3 seed.
  • If the Knicks lose and the Cavaliers win, the Bucks fall to the No. 3 seed.
  • If the Knicks and Cavaliers both win, the Bucks fall to the No. 4 seed.

And that is just the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Entering the final day of the season, four teams — Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat  — could fill any of the Nos. 5-8 seeds in the East, which means the Bucks don’t have any idea who their first-round opponent will be.

“Scouting nightmare,” Rivers said post-game on Friday. “We know we’ll be between two and four. We do know that. That’s a certainty. Other than that, we don’t know anything… The good news is no matter what, we’ll be at home for Game 1. That we do know.”

After watching the Bucks drop a first-round series to the Miami Heat as the No. 1 seed last season, there will be a segment of Bucks fans who find themselves worrying about the Bucks’ first-round match-up and trying to suggest the Bucks should try to win or lose on Sunday to try to set up a match-up against a specific opponent. That, however, doesn’t really even seem possible, considering anything could happen with seeds No. 5-8 in the East.

The players, though, know trying to plan for such a thing or play a certain way to try to set up a certain match-up would be foolish.

“You’re gonna face somebody good in the playoffs, no matter what,” Middleton said. “No matter if it’s the first round, second round, Eastern Conference Finals, (NBA) Finals. There’s no easy path. We learned that in the past before, winning it and also losing it, so just gotta be prepared for anybody that we play.”

On Sunday, the Bucks will figure out what their potential path to a championship will be, but only after they suit up and play the Magic.

(Photo of Khris Middleton and Lu Dort: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)

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