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Even After Damian Lillard’s “Personal Issues” Admission, Charles Barkley Delivers Gut Punch to Giannis-Less Bucks

Published 04/20/2024, 10:55 AM EDT

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“People say, ‘When I hoop, I ain’t thinking about nothing,’ but I’m not 21. I got three kids. I’m tight with my family, and I’m going through a divorce.” After spending 11 years in Portland, surrounded by loved ones, Damian Lillard was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks last September. That feeling of having his people around had become a constant. And now that he’s away, it’s been understandably difficult, especially with his ongoing divorce proceedings. Yes, it’s affected his performance with the Bucks, and yes, he’s admitted it. So, as the Bucks prepare to start their playoff journey, Charles Barkley predicted the end of the road.

Damian Lillard’s trade and Doc Rivers’ appointment this season had Milwaukee Bucks fans dreaming of their second championship in four years. If the guard’s admission wasn’t enough of a gut punch to fans’ hopes, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s possible status for the series against the Indiana Pacers sure was. Add to that the team’s abysmal record under Rivers, Charles Barkley wasn’t ready to even consider the Bucks continuing their bid for the championship.

On Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson asked Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Barkley their predictions for the first-round Eastern Conference games. When he asked Barkley who would win the Bucks-Pacers series, without a second thought, the former 76er asserted, “Indiana.” With both he and Shaq choosing Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Orlando, Kenny Smith went a different way.

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Just as Smith chose “Milwaukee” in the Pacers series, Barkley – visibly confused – asked, “What? You know Giannis ain’t playing, right?” In the April 9 game against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo strained his left calf muscle and has been out ever since. He had the same injury in 2022 and returned to regular play 15 days later. While he may not play in Game 1, there’s a chance he might return before Game 2 (April 23) or Game 3 (April 26). Maybe that’s why Smith stuck with the No.3 seeds, repeating, “Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Milwaukee.” 

Antetokounmpo has averaged 30.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per contest this season. Even though Doc Rivers hasn’t confirmed his status for Game 1, the power forward will likely sit this one out. By placing his bet on the Pacers due to Giannis’ probably absence in the series, Charles Barkley may not have taken a direct dig at Damian Lillard. But it sure was an indirect one. Someone who has openly criticized the point guard, though, is Stephen A. Smith.

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On The Stephen A. Smith Show, he predicted the same thing Barkley did. “I think the Indiana Pacers could beat the Milwaukee Bucks because Giannis ain’t healthy, and we don’t know when Giannis is going to be back.” But he also placed some of the blame on Lillard for the Bucks’ recent performances. “I don’t think that Damian Lillard is happy in Milwaukee. He’s got some personal issues. We wish him nothing but the best. I get all of that, but in the end, it has compromised the team. He’s not the defender Jrue Holiday was.” That said, are Lillard, Giannis’ absence, and the other players the only reason for the Bucks failing?

The curious appointment of Doc Rivers

Rivers’ mid-season coaching change did leave many scratching their heads. Rivers revealed, “I’ll be honest, I told the owners when they called, ‘I don’t understand why you’re doing this.’ That was a tough one. That’s where you have the hesitation.” His comments about the hiring seem odd, but the team’s form is even more puzzling.

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The Bucks became the first team in the last 30 years to lose 3 straight games as double-digit favorites on paper. They are the number 3 seed in the East, thanks to a brilliant start under Adrian Griffin. The Bucks played 46 games, winning 32 of them under their former coach. Their winning percentage before Rivers was 69.5%. Under Rivers, the Bucks have a 17-19 record, as a result of which their winning percentage has come down to 47.22%.

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Under normal circumstances, a No.3 seed should be the favorite over a No.6 seed, right? But in Milwaukee’s case, the situation is different. Injury to the main man Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose availability status is unclear. Add to that Damian Lillard’s current off-court issues, Charles Barkley had no hesitation in picking the Pacers as the favorites.

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Written by:

Pranav Kotai

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Pranav Kotai is an NBA beat writer at EssentiallySports. With a master's in sports management and a lifelong passion for basketball, Pranav has an eye for understanding NBA like no other. Pranav is an open encyclopedia of all storylines, with a well-rounded approach to his writing, especially for his favorites like NBA legends Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley.
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Edited by:

Caroline Joseph