Five things we learned from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship, their 2020-21 season and their playoff run right through their 105-98 victory in Game 6 of the 2021 Finals Tuesday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo should be the NBA’s poster guy
No one is rushing any of the biggest names off the stage. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and a half dozen others still reign as NBA superheroes, marquee attractions and dominant players.
But for a league with an ever-expanding international focus, as a bundle of physical attributes and skills that run the gamut from point guard to restricted-area punisher, as someone whose game is both incredible and highly relatable – who among us doesn’t think we still could improve at the free-throw line? – Antetokounmpo has it all.
He plays with a bounce and an eager, curious nature that seems to take fans along possession by possession. Aside from some intentional “mean mug” moments after throwdowns or blocks, he’s more likely to smile than scowl. Antetokounmpo floored savvy veteran media people with his poise and playfulness on the podium during these Finals, and he offered some big-picture perspectives – such as his fascinating ego, pride and humility self-analysis – with more wisdom than folks twice his age.
In a league famous for unhappy, grass-is-greener superstars, Antetokounmpo re-upped as soon as he had the chance back in December. He spoiled the fun for the speculators and those who want the best talent in the most glittering markets. The Greek Freak threw in and stayed with a mostly mediocre franchise in an unglamorous city.
And he achieved his and the Bucks’ dream of a championship before earning a dime from that $228 million contract extension, paying back the team in advance.
Antetokounmpo isn’t some affable dupe, either. He was up to his lofty armpits in some of the social issues that rippled through the NBA and the culture, including the Bucks’ boycott of a playoff game in the Orlando bubble. He spoke openly late Tuesday night about COVID-19 challenges, particularly its impact on Milwaukee in the 2020 playoffs.
But that 7-foot-3 wingspan of his seemingly embraces everyone. Kids, adults, fans, opponents, fellow All-Stars, arena employees – well, everyone at least since his encounter with former Bull Mike Dunleavy in the 2015 playoffs. Toughness isn’t something to chase and add to his brand – he doesn’t need a drop more after growing up poor in Athens hawking trinkets in the streets there to tourists to help his family with some cash.
The NBA is seeded with a group of capable young stars – Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Phoenix’s Devin Booker, maybe Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards – to carry it forward. But no one should be out front more than Antetokounmpo, carrying several flags, wowing multiple constituencies.
2. It was easy to forget his knee injury
By the end of the night, Antetokounmpo was dancing. Behind the scenes, in the hallways, back out on the court for more photo ops. He danced in stark contrast to his painful, scary minutes balled up on the floor at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
That’s the moment when he, his team and Bucks Nation – is there a Bucks Nation now? — figured this compelling postseason run and title aspirations were over.
The way Antetokounmpo’s left knee bent backwards in contact with Hawks center Clint Capela, it instantly joined other can’t-watch-it replays of cringeworthy sports injuries, such as Clippers guard Shaun Livingston’s leg snapping under him in 2007 to the NFL’s Lawrence Taylor taking out Joe Theismann in a 1985 career-ender.
The 2021 playoffs? Heck with that, many who saw it wondered if Antetokounmpo might be out into or through next season, and return as some altered, lesser form of himself.
Then two remarkable things happened: The Bucks played two of their most complete and impressive games all season, circling their wagons to beat Atlanta in Games 5 and 6 with Antetokounmpo as an animated, genuine cheerleader. And then, a couple days later, with the Finals about to tip off, after maxing out the duration of the Game 1 injury report, Milwaukee’s leader and best player was back.
Antetokounmpo scored 20 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and played more than 35 minutes, a tribute to his resiliency and the labors and science of the Bucks’ medical and training staff. He went for 42 and 12 as the Bucks fell behind 2-0 in the series, then kept going all the way. From the Game 4 blocked shot of Deandre Ayton and the Game 5 alley-oop near the end, to his all-time performance in the clincher: 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, 17 of 19 from the foul line.
Milwaukee got to dance Tuesday night only because Antetokounmpo was able to.
3. A lower-case super team is OK too
The Bucks won the second NBA championship in their franchise history with one leg tied behind their backs. That is, one of the three legs on the proverbial stool of team-building.
Drafts, trades and free agency are the tools most general managers and team presidents try to use in constructing a roster, but the last of those really isn’t available to a team such as Milwaukee. Never mind big revenues vs. smaller revenues — like a lot of other smallish markets, Milwaukee doesn’t hold much appeal for free agents seeking the best both on and off the court.
Players line up to go to Miami, Los Angeles or New York (well, Brooklyn at least). But Sacramento, Indiana, LeBron-less Cleveland or Milwaukee? Much tougher. That puts greater stress on the front offices in those places to actively do the heavy-lifting of finding gems in the Draft and managing assets efficiently to pounce at the trade deadline or in the offseason.
Remember, the biggest free-agent signing in Milwaukee history arguably was Pistons center Greg Monroe. He signed a three-year, $50 million deal in the summer of 2015, just as the ground was shifting beneath the feet of NBA big men. No stretch five, solidly old school, Monroe was traded just days into his third season with the Bucks. The No. 7 pick overall in 2011, Monroe was out of fashion, then out of the league entirely at the age of 28.
Brook Lopez is the best free-agent acquisition on the current Bucks squad but he was largely an afterthought, a one-time Nets All-Star who washed through the Lakers for one season in 2017-18. His salary dropped from $22.6 million to $3.4 million when he signed with the Bucks, but the makeover in his game he began in Brooklyn – re-inventing himself to shoot 3-pointers – fit perfectly with coach Mike Budenholzer’s game plan.
Other pick-ups similarly have been certified-used players at best, scrap-heap bound at worst, including Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and Jeff Teague.
The job is DONE. pic.twitter.com/jvFMryKrnb
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 21, 2021
Of the Bucks’ top 10 rotation players when this postseason began, five were low-level signings. Three arrived via trades – Jrue Holiday back in November, P.J. Tucker at the March deadline and Khris Middleton way back in 2013. Antetokounmpo and Donte DiVincenzo were drafted by the organization.
Not one Super Friend, Banana Boat Buddy or AAU Sidekick in the bunch.
And the average Draft selection of the top nine was 24 (from Lopez at No. 10 and Antetokounmpo at No. 15 in their respective classes to Middleton at No. 39 and Connaughton at No. 41). Forbes wasn’t drafted at all.
GM Jon Horst largely has stayed out of the limelight till now. He was seen by some as too young and inexperienced when he replaced John Hammond – the man who laid the foundation with Antetokounmpo and Middleton before heading to Orlando in 2017 during a time of office politics with Jason Kidd as coach.
Hammond, in fact, got a shout-out from Antetokounmpo after Game 6. “John Hammond drafted me, believed in me, believed in my family, brought them over here,” Antetokounmpo said. “He made me feel comfortable. He made me feel like I was his son when I was homesick and alone in the hotel.”
Still, Horst is the guy who hired Budenholzer, acquired most of the current players and got Antetokounmpo’s name on the dotted line for the future. There have been missteps – the Bogdan Bogdanovic maneuver with Sacramento blew up on Horst last fall – but he pressed on.
This team is a long way from when it dove to the bottom of the league, going 15-67 in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season to add a top lottery pick. That pick – Jabari Parker at No. 2 in 2014 – was supposed to be a pillar of what the Bucks have become. Injuries had its own say.
Check out this quote from Antetokounmpo: “It’s not about the Draft, it’s about what you do after the Draft. You have to come into the league, learn at practice and try to play at the highest level.”
He said it back in 2014, in training camp for his second NBA season. Pretty smart.
4. Budenholzer was the right coach for this team
And presumably still is. Speculation about his job security has ebbed and flowed – more the latter than the former – since the spring of 2019. That’s when Milwaukee coughed up a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals to lose four straight to the Raptors, in what seemed like a stubborn adherence to one plan, one style, Giannis-attacking-a-wall-of-defenders or bust.
The grousing intensified last year when the Bucks were knocked out of the bubble by Miami in the conference semifinals. So this season, in what even some folks inside the organization considered a last chance for this coach-team combo, Budenholzer and his staff acknowledged they needed to change.
They changed up some defensive schemes, found ways to play offensively that were less dependent on Antetokounmpo with the ball, added a “dunker” role closer to the rim in their sets and then used the regular season as a canvas to get good at it all.
Milwaukee’s regular season dipped, as did its playoff seeding. But the Bucks felt they had more resources, more options, more possible ways to win. And then when they did, in Game 7 in Brooklyn, Game 6 in Atlanta and taking Game 5 in Phoenix, the seeding didn’t matter at all.
“As a whole we used a lot of our failures as experience,” Middleton said Tuesday night. “We’ve been in a lot of situations our past years here. At the beginning of the year, we had a new team, a lot of new rotation guys, different guys step into the starting lineup and we knew it was going to be challenging. But we all said it was going to be worth it to learn and find out how to adjust and figure out what we needed to do in-game to win.
“We knew it wasn’t always going to be pretty … but that’s the type of team you want to be, to throw different guys out there, different lineups out there, because you can’t win the same way at this level.”
Budenholzer, a two-time Coach of the Year, now has his own head coaching championship to go with four he won in San Antonio as an assistant. A lot of joy and a little emotion sprang from him in the postgame, too, particularly for lead assistant Darvin Ham and his staff.
“Darvin has been with me since the first day I was a head coach,” Budenholzer said. “Some of these guys have been with me for seven years, and then we have new guys that have come in. Those coaches, they do all the work. Every day what they do, before practice, in the coaches’ meetings, ideas, thoughts, concepts. I love those guys, no doubt about it. The staff, I think it’s part of what makes coaching special is having assistant coaches and a staff that you can laugh with, you can cry with, you can work with, you can debate with or fight – sometimes we fight.
“I love the players, I love the roster, I love the team. I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I am and just to be a small part of what’s happening.”
5. So, Milwaukee as a destination market?
It wasn’t that long ago – 2014, to be exact – that the Bucks previous owner Herb Kohl made it a condition of the franchise’s sale to Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and the rest of the current partners that the Bucks be kept in Milwaukee. There had been talk for years, off and on, about the team being sold and moved elsewhere. Kohl himself had stepped in in the 1980s to secure the franchise then, when owner Jim Fitzgerald had put it on wheels to attract a buyer.
Fast-forward to now, through Antetokounmpo’s emergence as a two-time Kia Most Valuable Player with whom teammates love to play and the global stage that showed the organization, its dazzling arena and its rabid fan base in all their glory. Never mind L.A. or N.Y., if the city in front of “Bucks” read Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia or even Chicago, players throughout the league might have this bunch high on their list of desirable places to play.
But it says Milwaukee, still more Fortress of Solitude than Justice League Society.
Can the Bucks parlay this title into a repeat or enough trips back to the Finals to qualify as the NBA’s latest dynasty? Or was this a one-off? The odds are stacked against the former, just based on how competitive the league is and the 29 other franchises vying for the top.
But who believed Antetokounmpo and the lofty ambitions he spoke of to NBA.com, with humility, back in his second training camp?
“I’m thinking day by day,” said Antetokounmpo, just 19 then, still built physically like a Tootsie Pop. “Hopefully we stick here for long years and everything goes well and we take the Bucks back to a championship like before . But if you don’t play hard now or tomorrow or the next tomorrow, it can’t happen.”
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