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This time a year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were licking their wounds and contemplating a path forward after a historic first-round collapse against the Miami Heat, in which they became the sixth team to lose to a No. 8 seed in the first round since the league adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984. 

Two head coaches, a blockbuster trade and another season later, they are back in the exact same spot after being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers with a 120-98 loss in Game 6 on Thursday night. While last season came to an early end because the players and coaching staff failed in the biggest moments, the Bucks were done in by sheer bad luck this time around. 

A missing MVP

In the third quarter of the Bucks' matchup with the Boston Celtics on April 9, the team was cruising to one of its best wins of the season when Giannis Antetokounmpo suddenly collapsed and grabbed for his lower left leg. The initial fear emanating from him, his teammates and the entire arena that night was palpable. Non-contact leg injuries are among the worst sights on a basketball court. 

Thankfully, the MRI on his leg revealed no Achilles tendon damage, but it did indicate a calf strain that kept him off the court for the rest of the season. His teammates did their best to extend the series to six games, but even that wasn't long enough to allow Antetokounmpo to return. If it had been another injury, there's no doubt that he would have played through the pain, but there was just too much risk associated with doing so on a bad calf. 

While there's no guarantee the Bucks beat the Pacers with Antetokounmpo, they would have been heavy favorites with him at 100%. He averaged 42.2 points per game against the Pacers this season, and his interior scoring was their biggest advantage in the matchup.  

This is an especially unfortunate end for Antetokounmpo given that he missed the majority of the first three games of the Bucks' first-round series last season. 

Not enough Dame Time

In the lead up to this series, Damian Lillard was not on the practice court with the Bucks. Maintenance was the explanation. Lillard had been battling a few nagging injuries -- adductor, groin, Achilles -- and the team wanted to be cautious with Antetokounmpo already sidelined. It was not until April 19, two days before Game 1, that Lillard was able to go through a full practice. He admitted he was "concerned" about some of the problems at first, but said the time off had him feeling great. 

That was evident in the first half of Game 1, as he poured in a record-setting 35 points to get the Bucks off to a winning start in the series. The Pacers' relentless pressure seemed to wear him down after that, however, and in Game 3 everything all fell apart. He twisted his knee in an awkward collision with Pascal Siakam in the first quarter, then re-aggravated his Achilles injury in the closing seconds of regulation. 

Lillard ended up missing Games 4 and 5 due to the Achilles, and while he returned for Game 6 and put up 28 points, he was not his usual self. Thus, a frustrating and somewhat underwhelming first season for Lillard in Milwaukee came to an end. Between coaching changes, injuries, personal matters and the general challenges that come with adjusting to a new team and role, Lillard never fully found his footing. 

During his press conference after Game 6, Lillard acknowledged that him and the Bucks went through "hard times" over the past few months. He added that he is "extremely excited" for next season, which he predicted will be much better -- both for him and the team. 

"I get the opportunity to play with Giannis, I'm playing with veteran players and I know the only thing we're playing for is an opportunity to win a championship," Lillard said. "That's why I made the decision to be a part of something like this. I understand the chatter and the gossip and all of those things come with the territory. And I know that criticism comes with being on a team with high expectations. 

"When I look at my performance, I know that I could have done a lot of things better, and I know that I'm gonna have a full season of knowing the coach I may be playing for and have a better idea of the guys that I'm going to be playing with. Being in Milwaukee, I've kind of settled into things here. Having a regular offseason and being able to actually train and be able to do live stuff -- last year I couldn't do certain things because I couldn't get hurt because I knew I was gonna get traded. I think going into next season [people will] be really surprised at how much of an impact all of these things actually did have when they see me come back."

Middleton's injury woes continue

Khris Middleton sprained his knee in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, which kept him out of the rest of that run, and has been hampered with injuries ever since. He's played just 88 games in the last two seasons combined, and the injury bug struck again versus the Pacers. 

A few minutes into the first quarter of Game 2, Middleton stepped on Pascal Siakam's foot and rolled his right ankle. Early in the third quarter of Game 4, Myles Turner landed on his leg after a layup and he tweaked his left ankle -- the same one that forced him to miss over a month earlier in the season. 

Middleton soldiered on, appeared in every game this series and even had one of the best performances of his career in the Game 3 loss. The two bad ankles and the extra load he was carrying without his co-stars seemed to catch up with him in Game 6, though, as he finished with just 14 points on 6-of-15 from the field. 

"Ankles are sore, but everybody's going through something in the playoffs," Middleton remarked. "So if you can play through it, you gotta go out there and play, no excuses about it. Just tonight, just didn't have it."

Bad luck ends season early

After another first-round exit, Bucks general manager Jon Horst and the rest of the front office will face some tough questions about this season and their role in the outcome. There was plenty they could, and should, have done differently over the past year. 

The devastating rash of injuries that cost the team its two best players at the most important moment, however, will not be on the list of mistakes. Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Middleton played 42 games together in the regular season, including just eight under Doc Rivers, and zero in the playoffs. 

As the Bucks know better than most franchises, sometimes you just have bad luck.