Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the Milwaukee Bucks opening game of the 2024 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers, a game in which they won by 15 points after leading by as many as 30 points in the first half. The only time the Bucks trailed in this game was during the opening minutes. Antetokounmpo then went on to miss Game 2, a battle Milwaukee lost 125-108 after trailing by as many as 23 points. While there is still a level of uncertainty surrounding when Antetokounmpo will be able to return from his mysterious calf injury, an injury in which few updates have been given, the Bucks find themselves in an intriguing spot.

The fact of the matter is that the Bucks are going to need Giannis healthy in order to be the championship contenders they hope to be. He is one of the best overall talents in the world, and Milwaukee constructed their roster around the two-time MVP. A championship run can be lost in the first round of the playoffs, just ask the 2022-23 Bucks, who finished with the best record in the league last season. However, a championship is not won in the first round, hence why Antetokounmpo remains doubtful for Game 3 on Friday night.

This Game 3 against the Pacers is going to be a very telling matchup. Indiana, who defeated Milwaukee five out of seven this year, including these last two playoff games, recorded under 100 points in Game 1 for just the second time all season. The 95 points the Pacers scored in the first game against Milwaukee were their fewest since the start of the 2023-24 season. Nonetheless, Game 2's victory saw the Pacers drop 125 points on the Bucks, something we have become accustomed to seeing from Indiana's explosive offense.

All season, the Pacers have been the best offensive team in the league. As tough as they can be to defend, the Bucks have an opportunity to prove that they are more than just Giannis. This team has enough talent to win, but this first-round series against Indiana is surely a mental test. In order to win a championship, a team not only needs to be physically gifted but mentally strong as well. So far, it's hard to make the claim that the Bucks can check off the box for being mentally strong.

When Giannis plays, they are obviously a better team, and they have what it takes to win a championship. The problem is that they can't solely rely on him to carry them every round, every series, and every night. Milwaukee is an organization that expects to compete for a title, hence why they traded for Damian Lillard last summer. The Pacers are a great team, but they are not close to being the best team in this league. If the Bucks can't get past them without Antetokounmpo, what makes Milwaukee think that they could beat any of the top-tier teams in this league with him?

Coming off a win in Game 2, the Pacers know they are in a good spot. Indiana defeated the Bucks twice at home this season, and now the next two games of this series will be in front of the rowdy Pacers' faithful. How the Bucks respond in Game 3 will not only set the stage for how this series plays out but also determine whether or not the Bucks will wait Giannis' injury out instead of rushing him back.

Bucks must find other ways to win outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis (9) looks for a shot against Indiana Pacers forward Doug McDermott (20) in the second quarter during game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Fiserv Forum.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Role players always play better at home. They also play a lot better when their role increases without the best player on the team. This has been the case with Bobby Portis thus far, as the Bucks' sixth man has averaged 14.5 points and 11.0 rebounds while shooting 41.9 percent from the floor through the first two games of the series. In Game 1, Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley also stepped up, as they held two of the highest plus-minus marks out of any player in said game.

The script was flipped in Game 2. Beverley was a game-high -27 against Indiana, and Beasley was ineffective for the 10 minutes he saw off the bench. Aside from the Pacers' offense finding its groove and Pascal Siakam staying hot with back-to-back games scoring 36 and 37 points, the Bucks' offense has remained constant. After shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 37.8 percent from three-point range as a team in Game 1, the Bucks shot 44.2 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from three-point range in Game 2.

Just by judging the numbers, it is hard to imagine that Milwaukee won the first game by 15 points only to lose the second one by 17 points. The main reason for this is that the Bucks still haven't found ways to win without Giannis being the guy they give the ball to and get out of the way for. Teams across the NBA are smarter than they were a few years ago when the Bucks claimed their championship, and while he is still a tough matchup, rivals understand how they need to guard Antetokounmpo.

Regardless of whether Giannis was on the floor, the Bucks probably would have lost Game 2 anyways because nobody stepped up besides Lillard, and their defense was horrendous. Physically, Milwaukee got beat up in this second matchup in front of their fans.

There needs to be a collective effort and understanding of accountability moving forward for the Bucks because this is do-or-die time. Giannis masks a lot of this team's inefficiencies, especially on defense, ever since Jrue Holiday left town, but he cannot be the sole reason why they are championship contenders.

The Bucks have made their shots so far in this series, and they have done a great job taking care of the basketball. Sure, if they had the extra little bit of firepower that Antetokounmpo possesses, they would be a lot more confident in this series. But the bottom line is that this team is still a wreck on defense. Giannis doesn't fix this problem overnight, which is why figuring things out without him on the court is a real identity test for this franchise.

Damian Lillard regaining playoff confidence

Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) looks on in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers during game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Fiserv Forum.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Dame has been the only player to step up for the Bucks and truly understands that right now is go time. After a 35-point performance with six triples in Game 1, Lillard went right back at the Pacers with 34 points and six made threes in Game 2's defeat. So far, Lillard is averaging 34.5 points per game while shooting 12-of-24 (50.0 percent) from three-point range in these last two games without Antetokounmpo.

Lillard has understood the assignment offensively.

In fact, Lillard is beginning to look like the Lillard of old, when he was carrying the Portland Trail Blazers deep into the postseason. With Portland, Lillard had CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic by his side. Now, he instead has Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. You can be the judge of which tandem was better.

What we have seen from Lillard thus far in this series is what the Bucks traded for. Throughout the course of the regular season, Dame has looked uncomfortable at times and has deferred being that first scoring option for the Bucks because this is Giannis' team. With or without him on the floor, it has become abundantly clear that Lillard can't play with this mindset, and he needs to be the one to hold the role of alpha.

Finding that balance of playing with and without the ball in his hands next to Antetokounmpo is something Lillard is still adjusting to. However, games like these against the Pacers, where he is scoring 30-plus points, give Lillard the confidence he needs to succeed in this series down the line, quite possibly when Giannis is ready to return.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not a one-man team

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) watches from the bench in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers during game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Fiserv Forum.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Every championship team has a great player. Simply looking back on the Bucks' 2021 title run, it's clear to pinpoint Antetokounmpo as “the guy” for this organization and the player that made everyone around him better in the NBA Finals. What truly made Milwaukee a championship team wasn't Giannis' heroics, it was the supporting cast around him, specifically Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis.

Although Lillard has stepped up to begin the playoffs, the Bucks still have questions about the impact the rest of their team can make. Lopez has not been the same defensive player he was a season ago, and now Middleton is dealing with a concerning ankle injury that would likely sideline him if this were the regular season.

Keeping Antetokounmpo out certainly limits the Bucks' potential to win against the Pacers, but they are still a 49-win team. The Bucks can't solely rely on Antetokounmpo, just like every other team in this league can't only rely on their superstar.

This roster was built to contend for a championship. The Pacers are a great team, but the Bucks know they are in a better position to go on a championship run right now. If they can't get past Indiana without Giannis, then perhaps this would be a great wake-up call for Milwaukee to understand where they are as a franchise.

Will Antetokounmpo be back? At this point, there is no clarity as to when the two-time MVP will be back on the floor. The good news is that Giannis is working hard to get back out on the floor, and he has progressed to shooting and movement drills. The bad news is that he has yet to actively scrimmage or play against the team in practice.

The Bucks need to find their identity without their superstar. Lillard is more than capable of being the alpha, and there is plenty of talent on this roster to advance past the Pacers. What happens in Game 3 on Friday night will answer the question of whether the Bucks are a one-man team or not.