2021-22 Kia Season Preview

Milwaukee Bucks look to repeat, without losing their edge

The Bucks face the ultimate challenge this season: winning back-to-back NBA championships.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo look to lead the Bucks to back-to-back NBA championships in 2021-22.

Given his championship pedigree prior to leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their NBA title in July, coach Mike Budenholzer would seem to know a thing or two about the challenges of coming back stronger the season after snagging the Larry O’Brien Trophy.Or, then again, maybe not.

“Unfortunately, San Antonio was never able to repeat,” Budenholzer said, chuckling, at Monday’s Media Day availability. “Hopefully we can break the code.”

For all the Spurs’ greatness in winning championships in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 (the first four with Budenholzer as an assistant), they never immediately backed up one title year with another. That’s as sobering a lesson as any for Milwaukee as it officially opens for business Tuesday with its first day of training camp.

And, should the Bucks need it, it could be one of several handy Jedi mind tricks to keep them lightsaber-focused as they try to do precisely that.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2021 Finals MVP, is well along in his mental approach to the new season. He acknowledged that left knee – the one so wincingly hyperextended against Atlanta in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals – still isn’t discomfort-free. Like all his teammates, he is dragging from an offseason turnaround of a mere 70 days, the shortest in NBA history.

But stalking the halls of Fiserv Forum in the hours after the clinching game with a cigar, the trophy and a champagne-soaked uniform, no one ever enjoyed winning a title more than Milwaukee’s 6-foot-11 two-time Most Valuable Player – a few have tied, perhaps. He knows nothing great ever came from simply savoring that which already has happened.

“Are we satisfied? I’m not satisfied. I’m not even close to being satisfied,” Antetokounmpo said during a wide-ranging interview session that lasted nearly 30 minutes.

“That’s the tone we’ve got to set as a team. We understand that teams are coming for us. We’re gonna be ready. Hopefully we can be ready. Build good habits and play together and compete. And come for them too – it goes both ways.”

“Flipping the script” – working up mental challenges, even to the point of lying to oneself to maintain an edge and find sufficient motivation – was a tactic Antetokounmpo talked about with some enthusiasm. It’s a “greatest players” thing, he said.

“Shaq said that David Robinson never gave him an autograph or took a picture with him, and he went out there and dominated, played against him really hard,” the Bucks star said. “Then you hear the story about Michael Jordan, who did the same thing [with other opponents].

“Well what does that tell you? These guys have to flip the script in their heads in order for them to do what they do, in order for them not to be satisfied. So we’ve got to do the same. We’ve got to think, ‘We know we were the 2021 NBA champs but now we’re just the Milwaukee Bucks again.’”

The Bucks face the usual obstacles in their quest to repeat. Some are straight-up basketball challenges, with other East teams getting better and reigning champs getting opponents’ fiercest games every night. They also lost a couple key performers this offseason  – P.J. Tucker and Bryn Forbes who signed with Miami and San Antonio, respectively.

The ones over which they have the most control, though, come from within, and might be the most threatening.

Milwaukee’s unhappy ousters from what they thought would be Finals and possibly title trips in 2019 (Toronto) and in 2020 (Miami) dialed up the urgency on all of them last season. Budenholzer’s job was the target of daily speculation, general manager Jon Horst’s seat got hotter, Antetokounmpo’s future whereabouts was a cloud hanging over the organization, other players’ continued employment was getting bandied about… the Bucks’ margin of error was like a needle’s eye.

Well, Antetokounmpo signed his mondo-mega contract extension and everyone exhaled. Then the Bucks won the championship, releasing all the pressure that remained.

Getting their adrenaline pumping now is on them.

“Are we aware that we are NBA champions? Yes,” Horst said. “Have we changed our mindset to get better every day, to try to build something where we can sustain success for the next four, five, six years to extend this run that’s been three or four years long already? I think that absolutely exists from the top down, and we’re all motivated.”

Said Budenholzer: “You can’t be naïve and think there aren’t going to be some things that are different. You have to acknowledge and embrace [them]. But probably lean into ‘What is the same?’”

The Bucks coach continued: “Physically it may take some time. But we have great competitors, and when you have that, you can sleep and know that great competitors can fight human nature and what might be complacency. They don’t like anything but winning.”

“Physically it may take some time. But we have great competitors, and when you have that, you can sleep and know that great competitors can fight human nature and what might be complacency. They don’t like anything but winning.”

— Mike Budenholzer

Khris Middleton said that when the team convened Monday morning, Budenholzer’s message was simple and direct: Do. It. Again.

“That was his quote, his phrase,” Middleton said. “It’s a challenge. We’re going to have to find a way to stay hungry, not be satisfied by what we accomplished last year, to find a way to do it again.”

The best athletes get wired to be wary of satisfaction, the surest way to plateau or backslide in their pursuit of excellence, victories or similar achievements. Coaches get paid to wire them. The most obvious way to assure it doesn’t happen is to repeat. But celebrating the moment, then tucking it away seems like decent plan too.

“I don’t foresee any overlap or complacency or anything like that. That’s not how this group is,” center Brook Lopez said. “It’s kind of like, at least in my mind, ‘That’s that.’ It’s great, it’s incredible, it’s something that can’t ever be taken away from us. But it’s happened. It’s done with. We’ll get a nice night on Opening Night to celebrate one more time with each other, get our rings. See the banner, which is going to be incredible. But we’re back to business.”

Back into the gym as of Tuesday, where Budenholzer expects work in the present, not partying about the past.

“We’re ready to go tomorrow,” he said, launching into his punch list of drills. “Practice, shell drill, transition D, all the same stuff. ‘Cutthroat,’ we’ll see who’s competing in ‘cutthroat.’”

The whole league competes in cutthroat, which is why the Bucks dare not relax.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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