The Bucks have endured a season from hell. Is there hope for better days ahead?

In a span of a few weeks this past fall, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for perennial All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and signed two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to a three-year contract extension, establishing themselves as the betting favorite for the 2024 NBA championship and possibly beyond.

Not a thing has gone right for the Bucks ever since, and Antetokounmpo’s left calf strain on Tuesday night is the latest harbinger of Milwaukee’s season from hell, even if he avoided a more serious injury.

Days from being dealt for Lillard, Jrue Holiday was rerouted to the Boston Celtics, forging a juggernaut. Lead assistant Terry Stotts quit in training camp, following a reported dispute with first-year head coach Adrian Griffin. After a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the season’s second game, Antetokounmpo reportedly questioned Griffin’s defensive schemes in front of the team, and three games later, the Bucks reverted to the drop coverage that made them successful under ousted head coach Mike Budenholzer.

And that was only the beginning.

After an in-season tournament semifinal loss to the Indiana Pacers in mid-December, Bobby Portis openly challenged Griffin, reportedly joining an internal chorus of criticism. A month later, frustrations went public when Antetokounmpo challenged everyone’s “pride,” including the equipment manager.

“Offense is gonna be there some nights, and, some nights, it’s not going to be there,” he said. “Your defensive effort, though, has got to be there. And defensively, our effort was not there. There was no pride. Guys were just driving the ball, straight-line drive, getting to the paint, over-helping, shooting 3s, offensive rebounds. There was nothing. This was not the Milwaukee Bucks. This is not who we are. …

“We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust one another better. We have to be coached better. Every single thing, everybody has to be better. Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better. The bench has to be better. The leaders of the team have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have better strategy. We have to be better. … We have four months to get better, so let’s see.”

Weeks later, the Bucks fired Griffin, replacing him with Doc Rivers, who soon told anyone and everyone about his “hesitation” to accept a job that was “more difficult than I thought,” since he could not muster a full effort from them into the All-Star break, when “we had some guys here, we had some guys in Cabo.”

Meanwhile, Lillard revealed to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill that the trade, coinciding with a divorce from the mother of his three children, has “been the hardest transition in my life, all things considered.”

By March, Antetokounmpo joined Lillard, calling this “the hardest season that I’ve played,” citing a surgical cleanup of his left knee this past June, the adjustment to Lillard and the coaching carousel.

Through it all, Milwaukee managed to stay in second place behind Boston, but consecutive losses last week to the lowly Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors threatened that standing.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Rivers, whose team has slipped to 18-20 on the road. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve actually been sitting back and watching everything. Not just our players, but our travel crew, everything, and I’ve made a lot of notes. I will say that, I won’t share that. But we don’t bring the necessary professionalism, seriousness on the road. And that’s something that we’re going to have to fix.”

That “four months to get better” was down to four games on Tuesday, when Milwaukee faced one more measuring stick against a Celtics team that led the Eastern Conference by 15 games. The Bucks delivered, too, taking a lead as large as 24 in the first half, only for Antetokounmpo to suffer a non-contact injury in the third quarter. He clutched his left calf, fell to the court and required assistance to the training room.

An MRI revealed no structural damage to Antetokounmpo’s Achilles tendon, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. We do not know the severity of the strain in his left calf. Per Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes, a low-grade strain requires an average recovery time of 17 days, but a Grade 2 strain extends the average timeline to 45 days. That is the difference between a return in the first round or the conference finals.

Former Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant ruptured an Achilles when he returned from a calf strain midway through the 2019 NBA Finals, and that precedent could mean a more cautious approach. In addition to the arthroscopic surgery Antetokounmpo required in June, he has missed games in the last month to what the Bucks have described as “Achilles tendinitis” and “hamstring soreness” in his left leg.

Antetokounmpo’s injury could not have come at a worse time. Milwaukee has two games left against the third-place Orlando Magic and could easily fall to the No. 4 or 5 seed. The play-in tournament will afford the Bucks a week’s rest, but a first-round series against any number of challengers will be a mountain to climb without him. They have allowed 118.4 points — the equivalent of a bottom-three defense — and been outscored by 5.2 points per 100 meaningful possessions when Antetokounmpo rests this season.

Even if Antetokounmpo returns to salvage a series, the clock is up on his chemistry experiment with a new co-star and new head coach, at least in a season that saw the Bucks scapegoat non-essential team personnel on multiple occasions. Upsetting the Celtics, who are enjoying a historic season, now requires Antetokounmpo to fully rehab his calf and strike a balance with a roster that has been askew all season.

The question now is what another early playoff exit might mean to Antetokounmpo’s psyche. The scare of an Achilles tear will do little to quell his anxiety about maximizing his prime. The Bucks have won a single playoff series since capturing the 2021 title, and as Antetokounmpo told The New York Times’ Tania Ganguli in August, “I don’t want to be 20 years on the same team and don’t win another championship.”

The Bucks have little wiggle room for upgrades. They do not have control of a first-round draft pick until 2031, and no recent selection has seized a significant role. Respectively, Brook Lopez, Lillard and Khris Middleton will be 36, 34 and 33 years old next season, when they are owed more than $100 million. The end of the rotation is full of impending free agents. An aging team in decline could get older and shakier.

The end to their season from hell cannot come soon enough, so long as a darker fate does not await.

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