The NBA playoffs are a cutthroat enterprise where champions often define themselves by being the best at seeking out and exploiting an opponent's flaws. That ruthless reality only results in a ring if the eventual title-winner also minimizes its own glaring weaknesses.
Through the first week or so of the 2023 NBA playoffs, we've already seen several title hopefuls struggle to overcome issues that hampered them during the regular season.
That isn't to say that every X-factor holding back a possible champion was foreseeable. While injuries are inevitable in the playoffs, there's no guarantee who it'll be. That's why, unfortunately, we have to cite injury in one particular case. Otherwise, we have strategic shortcomings and critical personnel problems to discuss.
The teams featured here entered the playoffs with at least an outside shot of emerging from the fray as champions. They're still in the fight, and some have even looked as good as advertised. All of them, though, have revealed a specific frailty that their opponents will continue to attack unless they rectify it.
Milwaukee Bucks: Health
Scan across NBA history, and you'll find virtually every team's run to the title had something to do with injuries. Whether the eventual champion benefited from good health luck of its own or saw a threatening challenger weakened by a critical injury, the last team standing tends to be the team healthy enough to actually stand.
That brings us to the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who face the prospect of a first-round elimination because Giannis Antetokounmpo, the former Finals MVP and reputed postseason world-destroyer, has missed the better part of three games with a back injury.
Antetokounmpo's departure 11 minutes into Game 1 after an ugly fall had everything to do with the eighth-seeded Miami Heat stealing that contest in Milwaukee. His continued unavailability was an undeniable factor in the Heat also securing a Game 3 win, and though he finished with a triple-double in Game 4, Antetokounmpo visibly grimaced throughout the contest and couldn't keep pace with Jimmy Butler's 56-point explosion.
As a result, the Bucks are on the brink of elimination at the hands of a No. 8 seed.
Miami deserves credit for capitalizing. It uncharacteristically shot the lights out in Game 1 (15-of-25 from deep) and continued the trend by drilling 16 of its 33 three-point attempts in Game 3. Butler has more than lived up to his own reputation as a postseason level-raiser, and the Heat's loss of Tyler Herro to a broken hand means they won't be sending the Bucks any sympathy cards.
Milwaukee may well right itself and win the series. But back injuries tend to linger, and the Bucks' shaky depth is at least as significant of a story as the Heat's surprisingly hot shooting.
If Antetokounmpo can't get right and stay right, a Milwaukee team that entered the playoffs with a terrific shot to win its second title since 2021 may not be a contender at all.