Editor’s note: There’s a long season ahead, so remember that we’re just having fun with this article.
The Bucks opened their title defense with a comfortable 127-104 win over the Nets. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the team with 32 points, 14 boards and 7 assists, while five other Bucks scored in double-figures. It was the perfect start to the season for the defending champs, though Jrue Holiday’s exit late in the first half dampened the mood a bit. Fortunately, it was only a heel contusion and the MRI came back negative.
The playoffs aren’t until April next year, but what does their result in Game 1 of 82 mean for their repeat chances? Generally, not much, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to find something, anything. So let’s look at some numbers that may or may not matter after 6 months.
Defending champions are now 59-16 (.786) in season openers. The Bucks were actually expected to win because defending champs usually do on their banner night. It doesn’t really mean much because…
Since the turn of the millennium, there have only been five NBA teams who have successfully defended their crown: the 2001, 2002, and 2009 Lakers; the 2013 Heat; and the 2018 Warriors. Let’s look at how these teams fared on opening night:
2000-01 Lakers: W 96-86 vs. Blazers
2001-02 Lakers: W 98-87 vs. Blazers
2009-10 Lakers: W 99-92 vs. Clippers
2012-13 Heat: W 120-107 vs. Celtics
2017-18 Warriors: L 122-121 vs. Rockets
The winning percentage (0.800) is a tick higher than the overall record for defending champs. It is also worth noting that the only blemish, the 2018 Warriors, comes with a footnote. Their game against the Rockets was a wildly entertaining affair which saw Houston make a furious run after being down 101-88 to start the fourth and take a late one-point lead in the final 44 seconds. In Golden State’s last possession, Steph Curry missed a long 2 and Kevin Durant ended up with the loose ball and hit a baseline jumper to win the game… for about a minute. The refs eventually waved it off after replay showed that the shot left his hand a fraction of a second after the final buzzer.
An opening night win doesn’t guarantee a repeat, but a repeat is less likely if the defending champ starts off with an L.
The Bucks’ 23-point win is the widest margin of victory for a defending champ since the Cavs’ 117-88 thrashing of the New York Knicks in 2016. The only other game over the past 20 years where the defending champs won by at least 15 points was in 2015, when the Warriors beat the Pelicans, 111-95.
Both those Cavs and Warriors would go on to be the losing finalists, so is this an ominous sign for the Bucks? Not quite.
The Cavs and Warriors played against non-playoff teams during their openers, so the blowouts weren’t entirely unexpected. The Knicks went 31-51 in 2017 while the Pelicans finished 30-52 in 2016, with both teams finishing a lowly 12th in their respective conferences. (Both games were a miss by NBA’s matchmakers.)
On the contrary, the Bucks came up against a Nets team that are heavy title favorites. Though the Nets were without Kyrie Irving, they had a healthy James Harden unlike the last time the teams met in the East semis.
If we lower the winning-margin threshold a bit to 13, then one other team fits the criteria: the 2012-13 Heat. They beat the Celtics 120-107 in their opener and there are some interesting bits of parallels between the Heat-Celtics and Bucks-Nets that are worth mentioning.
Both were coming off a tough 7-game series the year before. Miami and Boston faced off in an epic 2012 East finals; Milwaukee and Brooklyn had their own slobberknocker which was worthy of a final last May. The superstars for the defending champs each had a double-double (LeBron James had 26-10 in 2012 to Giannis’s 32-14 last night) and had game scores of over 25 (25.1 for LeBron, 26.4 for Giannis). Both Heat and Bucks had injury scares during the game, with LeBron suffering from cramps and Holiday’s heel contusion.
The losing team each had two players score at least 20 points: Paul Pierce (23) and Rajon Rondo (20) for the Celtics; Kevin Durant (32) and Harden (20) for the Nets. Both Celtics and Nets were also missing key players who were out due to drama-filled circumstances. Kyrie was out due to his vaccination status, while Ray Allen’s situation was a bit more permanent, as he pulled a Benedict Arnold (nay Roose Bolton for millennials) on the Celtics and joined the Heat in the summer of 2012.
The similarities bode well for the Bucks, as the Heat went on to repeat in 2013, although that’s about as far as I can take the comparison. The Celtics were actually mediocre in 2012-13, as Father Time had caught up with Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They went on to finish the regular season as the 7th seed before being booted out in the first round. Danny Ainge would finally pull the plug on that Celtics era when he completed what is considered as one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history in the following offseason.
As a team, KD and the Nets are nothing like those 2013 Celtics, which actually makes the Bucks’ win even more impressive. Overall, it was an auspicious start to the season by the Bucks. Repeating is hard—coach Mike Budenholzer knows this first-hand from his time with the Spurs—but starting off on the right foot is never a bad thing.
While a championship is never won on the first game of the season, it was nonetheless an impressive performance by the Bucks against a conference rival that was inches away from advancing last postseason and has been installed as the overwhelming favorites to win it all this year. It was a statement win and the message was clear: the road to the 2022 championship goes through the Deer District.