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Giannis Antetokounmpo saves best for last, leads Bucks to first NBA title in 50 years

In a career-defining game, Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 50 and gets just enough help from his teammates to oust Phoenix in Game 6.

Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists in The Finals.

MILWAUKEE — The countdown to 50 years between championships began with 35 seconds remaining in the dry spell, when the sellout crowd inside Fiserv Forum began to chant “Bucks in Six” in perfect pitch and harmony. On the outside, where half of Wisconsin gathered, the screams rose up and the beer went down.

And on the floor, Giannis Antetokounmpo waved his arms and therefore gave the signal that it was time. Time for Giannis to join an elite group of historically special players. Time for the NBA Finals to creep to a close after six mostly suspenseful games. Time for Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker, Jrue Holiday and Mike Budenholzer to become a bit choked up and find someone to hug.

Time for the Milwaukee Bucks to announce themselves as champions for the second time in their history and first since 1971.

Seeing how it developed and progressed and especially how it ended, with an electric Game 6 that was authored by a player who instantly became a legend, it was well worth the wait. The Bucks rallied from 0-2 in the series and never looked back — well, actually, maybe they did a few times nervously along the journey — and then put the Suns away Tuesday night with a closing 105-98 victory that made a city shiver.

The victory and the title was mostly made possible by the brilliance of Giannis, a force on each end of the floor throughout the series, and who saved his best for last. Giannis scored 50 points, reaching that round figure on a made free throw — who would’ve thunk it? — and added 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. It was an immortalized effort by Giannis that surely earned him a spot among those who walked before him.

“Sweat and sacrifice,” Giannis said, choking up. “So much sacrifice.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo reflects on his and the Bucks' journey to their first NBA title together.

In The Finals, Giannis had a pair of 40-pieces as well, but what made this game special was the manner in which he toppled the Suns: He made 17 of 19 free throws, an astonishing display of efficiency by a player whose free throws were mocked by road crowds and also struggled to swish through the nets.

“I made them when I’m supposed to,” he joked.

Also, it was an affirmation that Giannis did right by himself, and the franchise, when he signed a contract extension in 2020 and delivered the championship that eluded these Bucks, who had nothing to show for their recent efforts except shiny regular-season records — until now.

“I could go to a super team and do my part and win a championship,” said Giannis, whose potential free agency had teams clearing cap room to make a run at him. “But this is the hard way to do it and we did it.”

He added: “There was a job that had to be finished … this was my city. They believed in me. So many people believed in me and helped me get to this point. I’m in the people business and I don’t want to let people down.”

Are there any historical comparisons to what Giannis just did? Maybe the best is 2011 Dirk Nowitzki, who took a Dallas Mavericks’ team that lacked another superstar-in-prime and beat the Big Three of Miami. Another is 1975 Rick Barry, who tug-boated the Warriors. But neither had their fingerprints on both the offensive and defensive end quite like Giannis, a two-time Kia MVP and former Kia Defensive Player of the Year and now, Finals MVP.

Budenholzer said: “It was the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership. He’s off the charts. It’s hard to find more words what Giannis does.”

It would be a bit unfair to totally attach this title to Giannis, though. This was also a product of the relationship he developed over the last eight years with Khris Middleton, and their trust and chemistry and respect for each other was apparent throughout the series. Giannis yielded to Middleton by choice and often by necessity and it worked: Middleton constantly torpedoed the Suns with mid-range jumpers and seemed to get buckets whenever the Bucks needed one.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 50 points with 14 rebounds and 5 blocks in a historic closeout performance.

Giannis has his own rags-to-riches story and in a sense, so does Middleton. He was a former second-round pick who didn’t develop into an impact player until the last six seasons. During that time, he emerged as the ideal sidekick to Giannis, with each player complementing the other to strike the right balance needed to win games.

Holiday arrived in an offseason trade with the New Orleans Pelicans to do exactly what he did: Supply defense and direction and poise under duress. He was indeed the missing piece to a Bucks’ team that, despite winning enough games to stick near or at the top of the East for the last three years, couldn’t break the postseason code until now. His timely and pressurized defense on Chris Paul helped swing the series in Milwaukee’s favor.

“We’ve been pushing and trying to get better,” Budenholzer said. “What Jon Horst has done, I think he’s the best GM in the league. To go out and get Jrue Holiday, to have the guts to make that trade. You go up and down our roster, Jon has done an amazing job. Our players were incredible throughout the whole time.”

There were others: Pat Connaughton gave the Bucks solid play off the bench with shots from deep and helped minimize the loss of backup guard Donte DiVincenzo, who was lost last month with injury. Also, Bobby Portis added toughness and in Game 6 brought some much needed offense by making enough open baseline jumpers to score 16 points. Meanwhile, Tucker had the toughest assignment of all, trying to contain Devin Booker one-on-one. In a snapshot moment, Tucker stripped Booker in the open floor in Game 6, impressive given Tucker is heavier and less mobile than the Suns’ star guard. Tucker, too, was a recent addition who was valued for defense.

Essentially, the Bucks were bigger, stronger and defended better than the Suns. Those advantages helped overcome the 2-0 series deficit and produce four consecutive wins.

Well, that, and Giannis.

He was relentless in Game 6. He had 20 points in the third quarter. And those free throws — they kept dropping, all night. The more they did, the more Giannis, flush with confidence, was determined to attack the rim and draw fouls.

His layup with 3 1/2 minutes left: Bucks 96, Suns 90.

His hook shot with 2 1/2 minutes left: Bucks 100, Suns 92.

His defensive rebound and pass to Middleton with a minute left led to Middleton free throws. The arena, at this point, began to shake. And then, the Giannis made free throw that produced the 50-piece — or rather, 50-masterpiece.

Giannis Antetokounmpo adds NBA Finals MVP award to his two regular-season MVP trophies.

There was still time left on the clock. The game wasn’t over. No one noticed or cared. Tucker fell to a knee and began to laugh and cry at the same time. The coaching staff jumped to their feet and Darvin Ham bear-hugged Budenholzer, his mentor. This was special for Budenholzer, who was fired a dozen times by social media during the postseason, who finally felt what it was to be a champion as a head coach after winning as an assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. It was even more special and emotional when Bud engaged in a group hug with Giannis and Middleton, his two leaders and longest-serving Bucks.

Finally: In tears, Giannis zig-zagged through the crowd at the buzzer to fall into the arms of his mother, Veronica, who inspired his international basketball road from Greece as a virtual unknown and once he became a superstar, encouraged him to re-sign with the Bucks last year.

“This should make every kid, everyone, just believe what you do and keep working,” Giannis said. “I hope I give people around the world hope, that it can be done. Eight years ago, I didn’t know when my next move would happen. Now I’m here, sitting on top of the top. I’m extremely blessed. If I never have the chance to sit here [with the trophy] again, I’m fine with it.”

All of Milwaukee is fine with it at the moment. Not since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson joined up and put the city on the map in 1971 has Milwaukee had reason to declare itself the best at basketball.

Well, that time is up. That time is here. And it’s quite possible that in the next few celebratory days, or perhaps even sooner, Milwaukee could run out of beer.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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