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How The Bucks Stormed Back And Won A Title

For the first time in 50 years, the Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions. In capturing the franchise’s first title since the days of Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge and Lew Alcindor,1 the Bucks came back from a 2-0 deficit and defeated the Phoenix Suns in four consecutive games, capping a magnificent run during which they conquered all the demons that plagued them during their previous two early playoff exits.

The last two years, the Bucks’ sterling regular-season offense failed them at the worst possible time. During their Eastern Conference finals loss in 2019 to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, the Bucks scored 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than they had averaged during the regular season. In their second-round loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat in 2020, they scored 5.3 per 100 fewer than they had during the regular season. Against the Suns in this year’s NBA Finals, the Bucks were at times hotter than the surface of the sun itself, scoring 114.9 points per 100 possessions — just 1.6 points fewer than their regular-season average. And this against a team that had allowed only 110.4 during the regular season and just 106.7 during its run through the Western Conference.

Head coach Mike Budenholzer — who had come under fire in the past two postseasons for his reluctance to change his schemes, make in-game or in-series adjustments or play his stars as many minutes as their counterparts on the other team — condensed his rotation (only seven players played more than two minutes in Game 6) and rode his star trio (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday) for huge minutes for the final three rounds. He and the Bucks tweaked their league-best defense to make it more versatile, which paid off throughout their championship run. He also made key adjustments both between games (like starting P.J. Tucker in place of the injured Donte DiVincenzo beginning in Round 2) and during them (like switching Holiday back over to scorching Suns star Devin Booker down the stretch of Game 5).

Budenholzer showed a lot of trust in the players who got his team to the Finals in the first place — and not just the stars. It would have been easy to turn away from starting center Brook Lopez after he was torched in pick-and-roll defense during Games 1 and 2 as the Bucks fell into a seemingly insurmountable hole. But Bud stuck with Lopez, who repaid his coach’s faith with terrific defense through the rest of the series and several key buckets in Game 6.

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Backup big man Bobby Portis, a valuable reserve who was benched earlier in the postseason, was reinserted into the rotation during the Eastern Conference finals and started in place of Antetokounmpo after the two-time MVP injured his knee. He, too, looked damn near unplayable defensively early in the Finals, but Bud stuck with him, and he came through with 16 points off the bench in the clincher as the delirious crowd repeatedly chanted his name.

Antetokounmpo — a player so uniquely big and strong and agile and dominant on both ends of the floor that earlier this season he was compared to Shaquille O’Neal by Shaquille O’Neal himself2 — embraced his inner big man during this series like he never had before. He owned the paint on both ends of the court and did so by committing to playing like a center, even if he had a center next to him in the lineup. In previous seasons, both he and the Bucks often seemed like they couldn’t decide whether it was best to use him as a primary initiator at the top of the floor or as a post-up-and-dive threat. But the balance tipped definitively in the latter direction during these Finals.

Game 6 was Giannis’s magnum opus, a performance so singularly dominant that the final stat line, outrageous as it was, somehow fails to adequately convey just how thoroughly he controlled every inch of the floor. His 50 points were tied for the sixth-most in Finals history. He became the first player since Rick Barry in 1967 to record at least 50 points and 10 boards in a Finals game, and the first ever to record 50, 10 and five or more blocks. Antetokounmpo, who experienced a dramatic drop-off in his free-throw shooting after the 2019 series loss to the Raptors, also connected on 17 of 19 from the line in Game 6 — his best free-throw shooting game of the postseason.

At just 26 years old, Antetokounmpo now has to his name a Most Improved Player award, a Defensive Player of the Year trophy, an All-Star Game MVP, two league MVPs, four All-Defense selections, five All-NBA selections, a Larry O’Brien Trophy and a Finals MVP. He is, by any measure, already one of the most decorated stars (at his age or any other) in the history of the game, and he’s well on his way to a historic career. When he was drafted just eight years ago, Antetokounmpo was a 196-pound ball of clay whose skill set was something of a Rorschach Test. Now, he is the 242-pound Greek Freak, an unguardable superhuman who can suffer what looked like a season-ending knee injury and return in less than a week to be the clear-cut best player on the floor in the biggest series of his career.

His is a remarkable story of both development and perseverance, which is also the case for his longtime running mate. Middleton was once a throw-in in a Brandon Knight-for-Brandon Jennings swap, but he has slowly but surely developed into one of the league’s best two-way players — a deadeye sniper and crunch-time killer who hit big shot after big shot not just during this Finals series, but from Game 1 of this postseason. He and Antetokounmpo amplify each other’s strengths and mitigate the other’s weaknesses, and they’re a wonderful duo because of that symbiosis.

The Bucks pushed all their chips to the middle of the table last offseason, trading Eric Bledsoe and betting that Holiday was the missing ingredient who would put their team over the top. That bet resulted in a sizable payout when Antetokounmpo put pen to paper on his supermax contract extension, but the jackpot came when Holiday’s hounding defense on Chris Paul changed the course of the Finals. Holiday had his own offensive struggles at times, but his ability to create shots for himself and others was a significant step beyond that of his predecessor, and his size and strength proved tremendously valuable assets on both ends of the floor.

Team size was a major advantage for Milwaukee throughout the Finals, and the Bucks used it to dominate the Suns in and around the painted area. They even played Antetokounmpo, Lopez and Portis together at times during the series after the trio did not play together at all during the regular season. Even in their regular configuration, the Bucks outpaced the Suns in points in the paint and second-chance points, and their 11.8 percentage point advantage in offensive rebound rate was the second-largest for any Finals team this century.

On the way to their second-ever title, the Bucks overcame myriad obstacles. They needed an overtime buzzer-beater to win Game 1 of their first-round series against the Heat, then used that shot to propel themselves to a sweep. They trailed 2-0 against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round, then came back to win the series in seven. They went down 1-0 to the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals, got blown off the floor in Game 4 as their MVP went down with a scary-looking injury, then won Games 5 and 6 with Giannis on the sideline.

They trailed 2-0 again in the Finals, against a team that had the goods to exploit the Bucks’ own weaknesses. But they rallied back, showing the type of resilience they lacked during their previous playoff runs. They won close games down the stretch, executing at a higher level than they seemed capable of in the past. And they ended the season on top of the NBA world, a tried and true champion at the end of a truly trying NBA season.

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  1. Alcindor famously changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the Bucks won the 1971 championship.

  2. Shaq then did it again on Tuesday night.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.