The Milwaukee Bucks may finally be fully healthy when they travel to take on the Detroit Pistons on Monday night. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have been listed as probable on the team's early injury report. If they both suit up along with Jrue Holiday, it would be just the fifth time that the Bucks' big three have played together this season.
Antetokounmpo has missed the last five games with a lingering knee injury, but all along the team was confident that it was nothing major. He was able to do work in the weight room and on the court during the process, but was held out longer than expected out of precaution.
"We continue to think it's the stuff that he and us have dealt with -- for me it's each year that I've been here," coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo last week. "We don't think it's anything more than that. Him being healthy, taking care of him is always our priority, we're probably always going to err on the side of caution because we know how important he is to us."
Antetokounmpo's five-game absence is his longest since December 2021, when he also sat out five games in a row while in COVID health and safety protocols. Given the ridiculous workload he's had to carry this season with all of the Bucks' injuries, a somewhat extended spell on the sidelines always seemed likely at some point and will probably be for the best long-term. At the same time, the Bucks desperately need him back as the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference is heating up.
The same goes for Middleton, who has not played since Dec. 15, and has only appeared in seven games this season. Despite saying at media day that he would return "hopefully close to the start of the season," Middleton ended up missing the first 20 games while recovering from offeason wrist surgery. After a few inconsistent performances, he was then shut down again due to knee soreness and has missed another 18 games.
While the Bucks got off to a franchise-best 9-0 start, that was in part thanks to a soft schedule in the first few weeks that was heavily weighted toward home games. They have not been able to sustain that level and are just 9-10 in the last five weeks, with four of those defeats coming by 20-plus points.
Now 29-17 on the season after a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, the Bucks have dropped to third place in the East, one game behind the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers. Barring a collapse by the Boston Celtics in the second half of the season, it appears everyone else will be fighting for second. As of now there are four teams in the mix, with the Sixers, Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Cavaliers separated by just two games.
The Bucks are not a team that has historically prioritized seeding, but this season more than ever there is an incentive to get the No. 2 spot. Or, at the very least, avoid the Nos. 4-5 seeds. The East is deeper than ever, and if the Bucks fall into the 4-5 matchup, they would have to beat three of the Celtics, Sixers, Nets and Cavs to make the Finals.