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Championship behind them, Bucks must map out new course

The Bucks completed the championship checklist last season -- now they must decide how to open their title defense.

The Bucks receive their championship rings and then celebrate as their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, fuels a win against the Nets.

MILWAUKEE — Rings presented and ogled? Check.

Banner hoisted and unveiled? Check.

Box? Checked.

That last one is the biggest and trickiest for the Milwaukee Bucks, who celebrated their 2021 NBA championship Tuesday at Fiserv Forum with a giddy pregame ceremony and then celebrated the ceremony with a 127-104 victory over Brooklyn.

Beating the Nets to open the league’s 2021-22 regular season was a nice nod to what the Bucks did in June, going all the way to Game 7, in overtime, to advance past Brooklyn in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
But it was a reminder, too, that last season was last season, and what Milwaukee subsequently did in beating Atlanta and then Phoenix to snag the Larry O’Brien Trophy is something they’ll never, ever do again.

Not that bunch, that time, that way. That’s the box the Bucks checked by winning the franchise’s first title in 50 years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo receives his championship ring, Khris Middleton thanks the Milwaukee fans and the Bucks unveil their championship banner.

It was magnificent, from the “Deer District” crowd phenomenon outside the arena, hordes of fans watching home and road games in the open air, to the tears and elation that spilled over inside with the 105-98 Game 6 clincher over Phoenix three months ago. A half century of striving, across all those players and all those coaches to build a time bridge from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in 1971 to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton now, ended that night.

The job is done. The debt is settled. The box is checked.

So, what have the Bucks got for a second act?

That’s not meant to be flippant. It merely addresses the short turnaround from one remarkable success to a brand new 0-0 record (OK, 1-0 now). And the reality that nothing is going to be quite the same for this crew again.

No more cloud hovering over Antetokounmpo, so breathtakingly talented and centered, because his Most Valuable Player trophies outnumbered his rings 2-0. No speculation now, for a while anyway, about coach Mike Budenholzer’s job security. No questions about Middleton’s status as a suitable No. 2 (or not) to the Greek Freak or guard Jrue Holiday’s shooting in pivotal games or general manager Jon Horst’s maneuver to land, then lose, Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Winning papers over a lot.

Game Recap: Bucks 127, Nets 104

Now Milwaukee is in the enviable position of playing free and easy, with little to prove and hardly any expectations nationally or even locally to match or top themselves. The stars of that 2021 mini-series already were or have been rewarded with contracts or extensions, and the honeymoon very well could last years.

Then again, maybe it’s not so enviable. For three years, the Bucks began their season with a clearly defined, sharply focused goal: climb that championship mountain.

And now? Could you blame them if things were a little blurry right now? They don’t have to win again. Nobody’s getting fired. Antetokounmpo’s stature among his peers isn’t an issue anymore – heck, he’s Top 75 material now, his legacy rubbing elbows with the league’s immortals.

Will that make 2021-22 easier? Or harder?

From the look of it Tuesday against the Nets, the tiniest of sample sizes, the Bucks won’t be fending off complacency. There was no ring-and-banner hangover, not with Milwaukee pouncing for a 37-25 lead after one quarter. (Actually, despite some history to the contrary, eight of the past 11 champions now have won on Ring Night.)

All the festivities before tipoff didn’t distract the Bucks from their cause. Whether it was the bejeweled transformer (ring-slash-pendant) prize handed out to deserving team and staff members, the presence of NBA commissioner Adam Silver at center court or the grand gesture of presenting a ring to longtime Bucks owner and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. Kohl, 86, owned the franchise for 29 years and kept it from being sold out of market when he took over in 1986.

Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated with 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in Bucks' season-opener.

The decibel levels were familiar when Antetokounmpo came out last to receive his souvenir, not far off what Wisconsin heard at the end of his 50-point, 14-rebound performance to end the Suns. And for the raucous fans at Fiserv, chanting “Bob-by! Bob-by!” again for the man named Portis was fun all over, even if their folk hero was in street clothes with a hamstring strain.

Veteran center Brook Lopez sauntered out beaming at the arena bowl of laser-point lights and pyrotechnics. And it all took place with the Nets, if not courtside, at least under the stands to hear the thunder and feel the vibrations.

“I’m happy. I’m happy because people around me are happy,” Antetokounmpo said, reflecting a couple hours later. “Seeing everybody smiling, seeing everybody enjoying getting their rings and showing them to their families, that was cool.”

It was cool for Milwaukee’s fans to see their franchise player back at work again — soon, too, after an offseason of just 69 days — and flexing some upgrades in his game. Antetkounmpo has gained accuracy with and confidence in his mid-range shooting this fall, and he even has sped up his free-throw routine by adopting a one-dribble-and-shoot tempo. Road crowds are going to have to count really fast to mess with him now.

Antetokounmpo had 32 points, 14 boards, seven assists and a handful of highlights. That included a streaking slam in the first quarter, finishing on a long breakout feed from Middleton. Then in the fourth, he drove by James Harden — a rival with some history and sour blood — and drew the foul for an and-1 play, capping that by blocking Kevin Durant’s 17-foot attempt at the other end.

There were other novelties for Bucks fans to savor. Pat Connaughton’s postseason play seems to have him at a new level. Newly acquired guard Grayson Allen showed skills and guile (10 points, six assists) in his Milwaukee debut.

Veteran guard George Hill is back after making the ultimate sacrifice — getting traded in the deal that delivered Holiday, thus missing the championship run. And unheralded prospect Jordan Nwora took flight, especially after a bruised heel shut down Holiday by halftime. Nwora scored 15 points with six rebounds and one meet-at-the-rim block of Durant.

There was just enough newness, in personnel, roles and production, to inject something fresh into Milwaukee’s game. P.J. Tucker is gone, along with a couple others. But the changes can be good.

“Professional sports, it’s pretty rare you’re going to have every single player back and everybody doing the exact same thing,” Budenholzer said. “Really, three of those four guys are new or weren’t playing significant minutes down the stretch last year. Those guys are hungry. They’re going to push us, I think our leaders are going to push them. So I think it’s good to have some new guys and some guys who are growing and developing.”

That just leaves the absence of urgency as the Bucks’ new sorta, maybe problem. Are they free now to enjoy this ride or do they need to conjure that next challenge?

“To me, it’s just ‘Act like it never happened,'” Middleton said. “That’s what I try to tell myself to stay focused. To stay as sharp as I can, don’t think about what I already did, [that] now I’m done.”

Connaughton talked of shooting drills that he and several others tackle after practices and shootarounds. Just because you hit 25 out of 25, he said, “it’s not like we never shoot that drill again, right?”

“It’s about continuing to enjoy the journey of the pursuit of excellence. And enjoying the moments with your teammates,” the reserve guard said. “There’s much more we want to accomplish. We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done. If anything, it gives us confidence because of what we have done and what we can continue to do.”

Shaq: Bucks show no rust, everyone plays their role

Certainly, the pressure on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks has been released now. They’re not thought of anymore as the guys who kicked away a 2-0 lead on Toronto in the 2019 East finals or the team that backslid in the bubble and got bounced by Miami. But there was a clarity to that, as far as dictating what came next.

“Before winning a ring, you kind of have a little pressure,” Antetokounmpo said Tuesday night. “You kind of love the challenge of showcasing who you are as a team, and trying to get over that hump. You think maybe when you do so, moving forward, everything’s going to be OK. When you win the championship, ‘the pressure is gone. I don’t have to worry about nothing.’

“But it’s false. Your mind creates something to give you a challenge. Your mind says, ‘OK, I did it one time, I’m going to do it a second time.’ You do it a second time, you’re going to do it a third time. Once you do it a third time, you might want to win an Olympic medal. There’s always something your brain is going to create to add pressure.

“It’s good. Because that’s when you’re at your best.”

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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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