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The Bucks' Long Game Pays Off

In what was arguably the most unpredictable season in history, Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co.’s path to Milwaukee’s first NBA championship in 50 years was long and winding.

MILWAUKEE — About five months ago, it might have been tougher to imagine the end result that played out here Tuesday, with confetti and euphoria raining from the rafters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo hoisting trophies.

Back in the middle of February, things were all over the place for the Bucks. After years of being at or near the top of the league in roster continuity, general manager Jon Horst shook up the group more than just about any team last offseason. There was undoubtedly plenty of talent still, but there were also the awkward, getting-to-know-you sorts of growing pains that often accompany a heavy roster shakeup.

Coach Mike Budenholzer tweaked his team’s offense in a key way to begin the year, yet the Bucks were still able to score with anyone. The problem, though—after surrendering 110 points or more in six straight games—was that anyone could score on their once-dominant defense too. Even worse, Milwaukee lost five consecutive contests, the club’s longest losing streak in four calendar years. To put it mildly, the pedestrian 16–13 record to begin this campaign, particularly after back-to-back seasons when the Bucks had the NBA’s most regular-season wins, certainly wasn’t anything to be excited about. It didn’t exactly look like the sort of campaign that would end the club’s 50-year title drought.


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At the same time, though, Milwaukee wasn’t prepared to panic. If anything, the franchise saw its tweaks and turns, which were rewarded with an NBA championship Tuesday, as playing the long game. The Bucks knew they’d cede early regular-season ground to other teams in trying a handful of big ideas. And if those ideas helped them get over their stubborn postseason stumbling block, it’d be more than worth it.

“We knew it wasn’t always going to be pretty. And we knew we were going to have to win with different styles of games,” swingman Khris Middleton says. “That’s the type of team you want: to be able to throw different guys and different lineups out there. Because you can’t win playing the same way [all the time] at this level.”

The regular season was essentially an escape-room exercise of sorts for Milwaukee, which had experienced its share of playoff heartbreak the past two years. So Budenholzer willingly put the club in situations to see how things would work, and how the team would adjust, in hopes of making the team more pliable over time.

“We’ve been close. And you just keep trying, and keep pushing, trying to get better,” Budenholzer said Tuesday, his hair and clothes still wet from the champagne shower in the Bucks locker room just minutes earlier.

The first big change was the overhaul of the Bucks’ offense; one meant to make life easier for Antetokounmpo by forcing teams to pay for using multiple defenders to wall him off from the paint. Specifically, plugging players into what’s known as the “dunker” spot—roaming to find an open space along the baseline, more or less—would theoretically leave defenses with a dilemma of whether to protect their back line, or whether to step up and prevent Giannis from his long Eurosteps to the basket.

Giannis Antetokounmpo attempts lay up against the Suns in the NBA Finals

The key tenet of the offense (to space things for Antetokounmpo with three or four perimeter shooters) remained the same. But the way they’d go about doing it would differ. Additionally, Budenholzer emphasized early on that he wanted the team to change the way it went about offensive rebounding, too. Before, with the perimeter-based attack, the offensive glass was a relative afterthought. But not anymore.

“It showed Coach Bud’s willingness to adapt and change,” said Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, who along with his teammates collected 79 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 42 in the Finals. “Beyond the dunker spot [overhaul], he was encouraging the corner guys to go in and crash the glass as much as they possibly could. And it made a huge difference—completely changed the way we played ball games.” The Bucks went from being ranked 28th in the NBA in offensive-rebound rate last year to being No. 13 this season.

The willingness to try different things on defense proved to be helpful, too. Whereas the club largely played just drop coverage with Lopez last year, this season Milwaukee experimented more often with the notion of switching pick-and-rolls. That, too, came into play over the course of the Finals. The Bucks looked out of their depth in Game 1, after too easily switching Chris Paul and Devin Booker’s screen-and-roll actions. But after a much better showing in Game 2, when newcomer Jrue Holiday was more aggressive about getting around screens and hounding the ballhandlers, the series quickly shifted.

But before the turnaround took place, when the Suns held a 2–0 advantage, things weren’t looking good for Milwaukee. It’s a spot the club has more or less gotten used to over the past year.

Jrue Holiday plays defense on Chris Paul in the NBA Finals

Even dating back to free agency in 2020, the franchise was under scrutiny. Sure, the trade for Holiday was an undeniable roster upgrade. But would he really be worth all those draft picks? And even if he was, and the calculus behind such a move was done in hopes of securing Antetokounmpo’s supermax commitment, was it still a home run move after the bottom fell out of the botched Bogdan Bogdanović sign-and-trade? A move that arguably would have made the Bucks favorites to come out of the East all of a sudden left analysts feeling just O.K. with what Milwaukee had done, as opposed to being wowed by its offseason.

Then came the less-than-stellar regular season, with Antetokounmpo taking some time to adjust to the new system and point guard. And then came the postseason, where the Bucks trailed Brooklyn 2–0 in the East semis, and trailed Atlanta 1–0 in the conference finals. But at a certain point, the deficits don’t phase a team anymore once it learns how to get off the mat and make the right adjustments. It's almost as if Milwaukee was in its comfort zone whenever it needed to roll out new gameplans.

Even with his 27-point, 13-dime Game 5, Holiday was no more consistent offensively than Eric Bledsoe had been in recent years. But defensively, he was a demon, getting into the bodies of Booker and Paul. His late-game rip on Booker in Game 5 was masterful, one of the two or three biggest plays of the series.

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It helped that Holiday is simply bigger than Paul. And that Giannis is bigger, and more athletic, than just about everyone. Even when Budenholzer pulled Lopez off the floor, the Bucks enjoyed size advantages that the Suns simply couldn’t compete with—particularly if and when Deandre Ayton was in foul trouble. Keeping Milwaukee out of transition is a nearly impossible task already; it became more so when Antetokounmpo was essentially playing the role of a small-ball center who's designed to get out and run the floor.

In Game 6, we saw perhaps the most terrifying version of Antetokounmpo (a historic 50-point clincher with 14 rebounds, five blocks and an eye-popping 17-of-19 showing at the line), one that epitomized how freakish he truly is. Numerous times Tuesday, Booker and his teammates made it into the restricted area but then saw Giannis and merely decided it wasn’t worth trying to shoot from there with him playing goalkeeper. Five blocks after already having made two incredible ones earlier in the series. And a 50-piece after already logging a pair of 40-point, 10-rebound ones earlier in the Finals. After having hyperextended his leg just two and a half weeks earlier.

What it clearly reinforced is that there isn’t anyone like him. There hasn’t ever been, and there may not ever be again. At 26, the five-time All-Star holds two MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year award, a Most Improved Player award, an All-Star Game MVP, a championship trophy and a Finals MVP award. And he’s done that while having an area he can still get much better at.

Khris Middleton drives to the hoop against the Suns in the NBA Finals

Because of that gap in his game, the Bucks have regularly leaned on Middleton, Antetokounmpo’s teammate of eight years, to close out tight games down the stretch. It generates critiques in the media at times, to have the superstar who’s entering his prime deferring to the person who’s perceived as the sidekick. But who gives a damn who plays what role when you’re an NBA champion?

Antetokounmpo used to care, but he doesn’t anymore. “We were fighting for minutes,” says of his first couple of years with Middleton. “He was yelling to me when I was 18, to pass the ball and everything. We were fighting on the court when we were kids, and now we’re on this stage, doing it together.”

Middleton wasn’t wildly efficient in the Finals, but he came up with big basket after big basket in the latter half of the series, just like he’d done in each of the prior rounds. Game 5 was his masterpiece, when he logged 40 points on some of the toughest shots you’ll ever see. How clutch was he? Middleton tied LeBron James’s postseason record for the most game-tying and go-ahead baskets in the closing stages during a single playoff run.

Enormous challenges lie ahead now. Someone like Bobby Portis, who had the postseason of a lifetime, and could probably run for the mayor of Milwaukee tomorrow and win in a landslide, has the ability to opt out of his deal and become a free agent. (Other teams will be able to offer him far more.) Milwaukee was hunting for years. But now, it will be open season on the Bucks, with an enormous target on their back. Some will malign their title, saying they benefited from not only the Nets' not being healthy during the semifinal round (a fair critique, given how close that series was), but also Atlanta, with Trae Young, even though Milwaukee closed out that set without Antetokounmpo playing in the final two contests.

Without a doubt, plenty will wonder whether this is a team that would have won it all in a more “normal” season, with a team like the Nets at full strength. They likely won’t be favored to repeat.

But that conversation, if it’s necessary, doesn’t change the fact that Tuesday happened. And for all the things that fell into place to help it take place, Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer and the Bucks deserve every bit of credit for making all the tweaks and tightening all the screws to finally win the whole thing this time around. Championships, particularly with frontmen like Giannis, don’t happen by mistake.

More NBA Finals Coverage:

Giannis Strengthens Legacy With Championship Win
Bucks' Title Marks Satisfying End to Difficult Season
Kobe Called Antetokounmpo’s Championship
Suns' Monty Williams Congratulates Bucks

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