Publish date:

Bobby Portis Is the Bucks’ Unsung Hero

No one expected him to make an impact in the NBA Finals, but the Milwaukee big man is making the most out of his opportunity.

Before this season, Bobby Portis was not one of the first names anyone in or around the NBA would say if asked to imagine a role player who would suddenly impact the 2020–21 NBA Finals. And yet, in Game 3 of the Finals, that's exactly what Portis did.

His arrival was unanticipated for several reasons, including the circumstantial—Portis was drafted in 2015 by a fading Bulls team that then traded him to the inanimate Wizards before he spent last year on the comically uneven Knicks—and his career-long struggle as a big man whose lackluster defense overshadowed the bright spots in his offensive repertoire.

But then in November the Bucks signed him. Portis upped his defensive intensity and awareness, took advantage of all the space afforded by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and carved out a meaningful role off the contender's bench. On Monday afternoon, Sports Illustrated had a wide-ranging conversation with Portis about these Finals, his improvement, getting starstruck the first time he met Kevin Garnett, what he thinks about people who call him Crazy Eyes and so much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sports Illustrated: This is your first Finals and first deep playoff run. Has anything about this series surprised you?

Bobby Portis: I think just the atmosphere was one thing that really caught me off guard. It's way different than the first three rounds in the playoffs or the regular season, man. It's a different world, man! It's the biggest stage, and I think all guys are just soaking it in. You always dreamed of these moments to be on this stage, man, and it just, it brings the best out of you. It just makes you go out there and put it all on the line because there's no telling if you'll ever get back to this moment.

SI: My next question was going to be, "How do the NBA Finals feel different … ?"

BP: Hell yeah. I love it, man.

SI: Did you feel any more stress or anxiousness heading in than normal?

BP: Yeah, anxious for sure. I'm always just ready to play. I never really get anxious, but I've caught myself these first three games. The night before I'm just anxious to go out there and play. The morning of, I'm getting up earlier than I normally would because I'm just anxious, so it's definitely a life-changing experience and just getting to this point, you always hear about all these great teams and great players that's won trophies and they get respect. So to be in that same equation, to even get talked about, like "Oh, yeah, it's the Milwaukee Bucks that won the championship." That's just always on my mind now.

SI: There was a play in Game 1 where you were standing in the corner, someone kicked it to you and you hesitated, let the defense recover, then had to put it on the floor before you eventually missed a little push shot. Watching from home, I was just wondering if that was due to it being your first stint in the NBA Finals and you were overthinking things?

BP: Oh, to be honest, I thought Jae Crowder was gonna close out a lot stronger than he did. It caught me off guard. And when he closed out I thought he was gonna fly by because most of the time guys, you know, they try to run me off the line. I just didn't read it correctly. He closed out a little bit shorter, so then I just tried to put it on the deck. I thought he was gonna come up and he didn't. So my timing was off a little bit on that one.

SI: Is it difficult to process what Giannis is doing, seeing it up close? Back-to-back 40-point games in the NBA Finals after nearly blowing out his knee ...

BP: I can't even put into words watching what we're witnessing. These last two games have been crazy, just to see how … I'm not gonna say easy because I don't want to say that word. But it really is easy how he can get to the cup and make guys foul him and shoot [17] free throws and just be a freak of nature flying all around the floor. The way he's playing after that hyperextended knee is like, I see why he has the nickname the Greek Freak. Most players would try to ease back into it or be not all in on it, wavering a little bit and favoring the other leg a little bit. But he's not like that. He's still planting and going crazy and going hard on it. So that's major respect from me, and I think everybody respects that around the world.

SI: Two years ago you're traded from the Bulls to the Wizards. Then you signed with the Knicks. None of those teams were particularly good. What about those cultures and environments is different from what you're experiencing right now in Milwaukee?

BP: I think the biggest thing that can just sum it all up—when you're on a losing team, or a tanking team, or a team that has playoff aspirations but it's a bad situation and they just tank the season to try to get a higher pick, I've been in those situations and those type of teams—sometimes, the coach lets certain things slide. Like on the defensive end, having a low man and things like that.

There isn't a winning culture in place. And just being here in Milwaukee is a total [180] for me because everybody's super locked in. Everybody takes care of their bodies. Guys come in, get extra work in. We watch film. After every game coach Bud is gonna let you know what you didn't do right. He's gonna tell you how he wants it. He's gonna tell you to go out there and correct it. And he's gonna bring the best out of you. And I think that's the best thing to happen to me, just coming to a team where I can experience the culture side of it, but I can also have a chance to impact winning in a positive way.

SI: Can you give me an example of something coach Bud said to you during a film session that really opened your eyes?

BP: [Impersonates Mike Budenholzer] “If you want to play more, Bobby, you gotta play some defense." It sounds crazy, but I had coaches say that to me, but not in that way. Like, I'll still play. But coach Bud, that's been his whole emphasis with me. For the first three, four months I was on the team, that's all he was talking about: Being locked in on defense. Locking in more on the low man. If I'm the top side guy I have to x-out on the backside. Things like that have really helped me grow into the player I am now. And then having great teammates, too, that trust you on the court just makes it that much sweeter.

bobby-portis-bucks-suns

SI: I recently read an interview that you did where you said the opportunity to watch Giannis and Brook Lopez up close has really impacted you positively. What specifically do you see from those two that helps you on the defensive end?

BP: Being around Brook, he's a specimen, man. For real, for real. You know, he taught me a lot, just watching him on the defensive end how he tags everybody that comes through the paint. That's what allows him to sit in the paint as long as he does. I didn't really know that because I've never really played the five. I played the five, but I wasn't like the two-way type of five. I just started trying to come into my own on that side of the basketball, so I didn't really know that.

And then being around Giannis, just how active he is with his hands and his feet. Just switching on the guards, watching how he's structured and things like that. All those things really helped me. And then just their communication on that end of the floor, it's been crazy, too, just to see how each player has a connection with another guy on the team. I seen him and Donte [DiVincenzo] have their own connection so he knows when his man comes up and screens Donte, they already know what they're gonna do in certain situations. So just talking to your teammates, you can have a different connection on that end. I don't know; it's just crazy just how this team operates, man. It's fun.

SI: In Game 1, you and Brook switched most ball screens. Since, your coverages have changed. You're dropping more, trapping some. But just speaking as someone who will never in my lifetime defend Chris Paul on an island, can you break down why it's so difficult?

BP: Chris is a Hall of Fame player. His résumé speaks for itself. He goes to every team and impacts winning. He changes the culture and teaches guys a different way on how he see things. I think all the guys in this league now are young. And all guys watched Chris Paul growing up as a kid. I've seen a video where they were talking about how they go to his house and hang out. All those things just make the team better. And him having that connection with his teammates on the court, just building that confidence in his other guys unlocks his game even more.

You really can't stop him going right. Everybody knows that. You just try to send him left as much as possible. Him going right is … he's hell going right. I think the whole world knows that. I don't know how he does that. His shot-making ability going to his right hand is just … it's crazy to watch. I grew up watching Chris Paul and now I'm going up against him in the Finals. That's the stuff you dream of, man. I'm just soaking it all in.

SI: You're one of the more energetic and intense players in the league. How do you decompress when the game ends, mentally and physically?

BP: Having good family and friends at my games, man. My family have been coming to my games all year long, just supporting and being there. It was a tough year with COVID protocols and things like that, so we've had a lot of protocols in place where I couldn't do my normal things I normally would like going out to eat, getting my feet done, just normal things that, you know, everyday life.

So having my mom, my friends and my homeboy who lives with me, just always having them with me keeps me sane, man. I'm in a great space in life. Physically and mentally. The pandemic really helped me out a lot, man, having a chance to go home for nine months. I didn't play in the bubble, either, so having the chance to be at home being with my mom and working out on my game and hanging out with my family and friends, it just gave me peace in life on what really matters. I'm just in a great space right now.

SI: You were around the Bucks so much this year that you started referring to them as family. How was that beneficial?

BP: [I learned] to just be yourself. Like, do what you do. On our team, our whole motto was "do what you do." Whatever you do best, be the best at what you do to help the team, you feel me? So that's what just makes it better for me because I know what I do best. I know I can come off the bench and bring energy to the game and impact it that way, whether I'm making shots or not. And then offensively, I love to score the basketball, so I just try to do the best I can in the minutes given and impact winning that way. So being around those guys I'm taught to just be who I am. They've taught me a lot about just taking care of your body more, getting extra work in and things like that, so I just credit them for that.

SI: Did you change any habits from previous years?

BP: Eating habits, for sure. I hired a full-time chef. So he comes to my house, cooks lunch and dinner. Having a chef is one of the biggest investments I made on my body because you see different things now. To change your diet, it really helps your performance. It helps your recovery, just all those things in one, man. That's the best part about it, changing my diet up, just taking it a lot more serious. I'll see Giannis and all these guys taking care of their bodies, eating the right things. I don't want to cheat them and not do my part.

SI: Is there anything you love to eat that you can't or don't anymore?

BP: I don't even know. I really wasn't a bad eater like that, you know. I would always go out to eat. But having a chef has just been good for me, man. I got my body fat down from 9.8% to 6.9%. I see all these changes. How food really reacts to your body. It just gives you the right nutrients that you need to recover and to be the best that you can.

SI: You made 47% of your threes this season. Did that surprise you?

BP: Yes and no, because my last game was March 12 in 2020. And then I ain't play another game until two days before Christmas on the 23rd. So I had like eight, nine months off from playing basketball at a professional level. So I just had a chance to get in the lab with my two trainers Vincent Mays and Marcus McCarroll, and we just locked in all summer. Hit up Lethal Shooter to come help out. He would come down all the time to Arkansas. We got it in, man. We put in some serious, serious work. So yes and no, it was surprising because I was shooting for 40%, but I shot 47 [laughs].

SI: Did you change or tweak your form at all, or was it more about honing what you already do?

BP: Shoot, reps. Sometimes when you play basketball, when things feel good you start to create bad habits on your jump shot, like not following through, standing still, catching your form, catching your balance. You don't lock in on every aspect. And now I'm just locked down on everything because I'm just trying to finish the shot and watch it go through more. Just tapping into that space. You got to zen out, man. That's one thing that Chris [Matthews, aka Lethal Shooter,] told me, is just to zen out. You gotta be locked in. That just stays with me. That's in everything in life, not just basketball. When you lock in on what you want to do and what you want to achieve, it's possible, you know?

SI Recommends

bobby-portis-suns-bucks-finals

SI: We've talked about your improved three-point shot and improved defense while contributing on one of the best teams in the league. How did you feel about not receiving the type of attention for Sixth Man of the Year that someone with your résumé usually gets?

BP: I don't feel any type of way. I do have, or did have, aspirations of being a Sixth Man of the Year award winner. But I just want to let my work talk. I'm not the type of guy who just talks about what he does and things like that. And, you know, one day it'll come to me. Everything comes full circle when you just believe in yourself, work as hard as you can and put the time in. The cream always rises to the top. I had a good year during the regular season, but there's always room for improvement.

SI: Do you want to be a full-time starter at any point in your career or is that something that doesn't really matter to you?

BP: To be honest, who wouldn't want to start? Who wouldn't want to be an NBA starter and get their name called and things like that? Who wouldn't want that? But for me right now in the moment, I'm content in my role and just being a star in my role. I just love what I do for this team and I love the city of Milwaukee, too. But you know, I think everybody in the league wants to be a starter, though. I think that's just the norm.

SI: You recently tweeted that Kevin Garnett, Zach Randolph and Rasheed Wallace were your three favorite players growing up. What did you love about those guys?

BP: I love them all because they all were intense. They all gave it their all. And they all just was like a different type of dog on the court. You know, Z-Bo, he ain't gonna really talk as much, but he's gonna talk back if you talk to him. Z-Bo was nice on the block. You can't stop him going to his left. Got the nice fade, nice touch on his shot. He's gonna outwork you. I just like Z-Bo for that.

Rasheed Wallace is gonna talk crap all game long. Nice post game. He's really a stretch four before the stretch fours really started. He could knock the three down. Trail man three. Corner three. Fadeaways. Get to his block. He had real game. And then KG was just a dog with how intense he played. You know, the grit he played with. I'm not gonna back down for you. Come at me. “I want you to come at me” type of mentality. Then his offensive skill set, the fadeaways he had. The jump hooks. I like all of them for different reasons, man.

SI: Kevin Garnett's last year in the league was your first. You played against him in a preseason game.

BP: Yes, sir.

SI: Looking back now, what do you remember about that experience, watching him up close?

BP: I'm not even gonna lie; I don't really get starstruck like that. But when I seen KG I'm like, 'Bruh, that's really KG!' It was crazy. So then he gave me a look in the game. 'What the f--- are you looking at?' [Laughs.] 'Hey, boy, whatchu looking at?' It was like a movie, bro! The experiences you get your rookie year are crazy. You always watched these guys and played with them on video games and seen them do interviews and have good games. And to be on the court with them, to be on the same team as them, it's a joy. The NBA is a blessing to me and my family, for real, for real.

SI: Did you talk back to Garnett?

BP: I actually had a pretty good exhibition game, too, so I was talking back, talking crazy. It was fun, bro. I really thought it was fun. So I remember that. It was in Winnipeg.

SI: You recently wrote that you wanted to bring "that KG energy" into the Finals. Have you been able to interact with him at all over your career or since that game?

BP: I actually haven't. But I would love to sit down and talk to him one day and just get to know him more. He's definitely one of my idols. How he played the game of basketball was like how I like to play the game of basketball.

SI: You also recently responded to a tweet about an old pregame ritual that you had to psych yourself up before games. Do you still do anything like that?

BP: No. I've only got one. I don't need to get hyped up because I'm always like, 'I'm hype now.' I know it's my job to go out there and perform well. And I have a lot of people that's watching me and want to see me perform well. But one thing I do that's funny is I put my left shoe on before my right shoe and tie my right shoe before my left shoe.

SI: Why do you do that?

BP: I don't know! I caught myself doing it and was like, 'Did I really do that?' But I only do that when I play basketball. I don't know what it is. I caught myself like, 'What the hell?' I tried to do it the other way one time and it was like … I don't know what it was, some superstition or something.

SI: You have multiple nicknames. What's your favorite one?

BP: Everybody calls me "BP," but I like Bobby Buckets.

SI: Do you remember the first time you were called Bobby Buckets?

BP: Pete Myers called me Bobby Buckets one time. A couple of my Bulls coaches did. But this year in Milwaukee they kind of made it like a real thing. I love that nickname. I might have to get a T-shirt or something made.

SI: What about Crazy Eyes? Do you remember the first time someone called you that? It might be my favorite nickname in the league.

BP: Really?

SI: I love it.

BP: You like the Crazy Eyes one?

SI: It's perfect. You don't?

BP: Yeah, I like it, too. I ain't gonna lie. [Laughs.]

When I was in Chicago they called me it a couple of times when I played for the Bulls. I made a couple T-shirts and sold a couple T-shirts. But I kind of went away from it a little bit. Then when I got here, obviously, Reggie Miller, he's the one that kinda started it. He started it my rookie year in the summer league when I was playing against Karl-Anthony Towns. He's calling me Crazy Eyes and that's where it started from. So hearing people really start saying it, they're tweeting it to me; it's kinda cool.

SI: I didn't know Reggie started it, just that he says it on the broadcast all the time.

BP: He started it. Not gonna lie. Shout-out Reggie Miller.

SI: Is there anything I didn't ask you yet that you wish I did or anything else you want to talk about?

BP: I just want to shout-out all the people who are underdogs out here in the world. I come from Little Rock, Arkansas. And it's tough growing up there. Where I'm from, people don't really make it out of Little Rock. They want to leave Little Rock and they want to be this and be that. They have big aspirations and dreams for themselves, but the product that you're around in your environment kinda brings you down. You have a lot of negative people who don't want to see you win if they're not winning. I come from a place like that.

And with me, I rep the underdog through and through. It's a way of life, man. It's just not about being an underdog in sports. Being an underdog, it's a great thing and some people need to hear that. Just because you're struggling in a situation you're in, or whatever it is, when you go through what you go through in life and you got all these obstacles that's trying to derail you. You overcome it and you become what you want to become. That's an underdog story. I just wanted to say that, man.

SI: When you look at all those obstacles you've overcome, is there anything you're particularly proud of?

BP: My mom and my three little brothers are my everything. I'm 26 years old. I don't have kids or anything. But I see these three dudes, these three little boys, you know? They're my little brothers. And they're older now. They're 17, 18 and 19. But my mom had to work. And she'd leave our house at three, four in the morning to go to work, so sometimes I would help my little brothers get ready for school, and then my grandpa would come pick us up and take us to school and stuff.

So I really had to teach these guys a lot at an early age. I had to grow up as a man earlier than most had to. So me having a chance to have these guys, have my family, I think my biggest motivation is them. That's what really keeps me going and keeps me sane, man, just knowing where all of us came from. I lived in 18 different houses growing up. Just wanting the best for them, that's really brought the best out of me.

More NBA Playoffs Coverage:

Giannis Is Seizing NBA Finals Moment
Cam Johnson Is Making An Impact for the Suns
Are These Finals an Aberration or the New Normal?
The Finals Are Mind-Boggling. And Awesome