MILWAUKEE -- The road to the 2023 NBA championship goes through Milwaukee. With a comfortable 105-92 win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks improved to 58-22 on the season, clinched the best record in the league, and No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs.
"It's just a credit to the players," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "The players have really stepped up; they've embraced the challenge. Night in and night out in this league is hard. There's great opposition and we want to be our best. To have the best record is something that matters and is important."
Though the Bucks started the season 9-0, a mid-season slump and an array of injuries left them as low as fourth place in the Eastern Conference. By late January, they were 5.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for the top spot. Then they flipped a switch. From Jan. 23 to March 1, they won 16 games in a row to tie the third-longest winning streak in franchise history, and since that date, they're 29-5.
They've largely been healthy during this recent hot stretch, but it was fitting in a way that they clinched the best record in a game that they played without Giannis Antetokounmpo and (for the most part) Khris Middleton. Few top teams have had as many absences as the Bucks this season. No one on the team has played in every game, while Middleton (47 games), Antetokounmpo (17), and Holiday (13) have all missed extensive time. That big three has only been together for 24 games.
"We got a lot of guys that can play, a lot of guys that will step up to the occasion," Wesley Matthews said. "It's an 82-game season. It's a grind. Unfortunately, this game has injuries. Guys have been in and out of the lineup -- I don't know how many rotations, or how many starting lineups we've had over the course of this season.
"For us to have 58 wins and clinch the No. 1 overall is a testament to everyone's character in that locker room and the determination to be the last team standing. What we did tonight, so far this season, has been a great feat. There's excitement. It's nothing to dismiss. Only one team can be the No. 1 overall seed, and we were able to do that. But we still have our sights set bigger and it's one game at a time still."
The bigger goal ahead of the Bucks is another championship. They fully believe they would have repeated if Middleton didn't go down with a knee injury in the first round, but another factor in their second-round exit was coasting to the No. 3 seed. As a result, they had to go to Boston for Game 7 in the second round and were blown out by 28 points. Now, they'll have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"Obviously, having Game 7s at home are gonna be big and things like that if it goes seven games," Bobby Portis said. "It's a lot different staying in hotel rooms than being at home, so obviously, that's a great thing to have."
The Bucks have earned the right to take a breath and regroup ahead of the playoffs, but come April 15, they'll need to be right back to the level they've played at for two-plus months. The Celtics, Sixers, Nuggets, and even the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Warriors will all believe they have what it takes to get their hands on the Larry O'Brien trophy too.
Rightfully so, but to do so, they'll have to come through Milwaukee.