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2021 NBA Playoffs

From #Bucksin6 to winning in six: The Bucks’ path to the NBA Finals

Milwaukee has taken a long journey to get a shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy

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There’s a well-known comment in Wisconsin when it comes to the hometown Milwaukee Bucks’ chances in a given playoff series: Bucks in six.

What started as a fool-hearted, yet enduring proclamation by then-Bucks guard Brandon Jennings ahead of a 2013 first-round series matchup with the “Big Three” Miami Heat – (“I’m sure everybody is writing us off but I see us winning the series in six,” Jennings said at that year’s Wisconsin Sports Awards) – morphed over the years into a rallying cry for a team that hasn’t made it to the NBA Finals in nearly half a century. Sometimes close, but never close enough.

But in the past eight years, starting just a few weeks after Jennings’ doomed prediction (the Heat swept the Bucks in 2013) with the drafting of a lanky kid out of Greece named Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have revamped, reconfigured, restarted and rebuilt themselves into an actual title contender that no longer lives on the fringes of the playoffs.

On Saturday night, after back-to-back years of underperforming in the postseason, the Bucks clinched the Eastern Conference title with a 118-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, fittingly reaching their first NBA Finals since 1974 in six games.

And it was all without Antetokounmpo, who has been sidelined with a hyperextended left knee since the third quarter of Game 4. For a team that prides itself on playing as a complete unit, rather than a Gladys Knight & the Pips-style one-man show, the Bucks leaned heavily on their two other stars, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. The duo combined for 59 points, 13 rebounds and 16 assists, with Middleton overcoming a poor first half (five points and five turnovers) to drop 23 points in the third quarter.

“Khris carried us there for a lot of it, just leaving his heart out there,” Holiday said. “Just kind of like if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down on his shoulders. I’m riding with him, riding right into the Finals.”

Making it easier for the Bucks on Saturday was that Young, who bruised a bone in his foot during Game 3, was clearly still hobbled. The third-year guard declined to attack the paint and had his passing lanes clogged up, leading to him starting the first quarter with nearly as many turnovers and personal fouls (three) as minutes played (four). At one point, Young shook 7-foot center Brook Lopez for an open look from atop the key but uncharacteristically passed the ball away.

“I still have pain. It’s going to be like this for at least a couple more days, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to feel 100%,” Young said after the game. “So I was going to go out and at least try and try to do it again.”

As the game wore on, Young became less timid, but aside from another breakout game from guard Cam Reddish (21 points, 6-of-7 on 3s), the Hawks weren’t enough for Milwaukee. While the Bucks were failed by poor shooting, lack of energy and hustle in the two games they lost in this series, those were their keys to victory on Saturday. The Bucks outgained the Hawks in 3-pointers (17-12) and rebounds (46-43) and committed one less turnover, the type of complete performance that is needed out of a championship winner.

“We needed everybody. I think that’s the best part about it. We needed something from everybody,” P.J. Tucker said. “Our bench was amazing all series, all playoffs, everybody on our team gave something.

“Giannis goes out, Bobby [Portis] has been great, everybody came in and fought hard the entire series. It just shows our team. It just shows the guts of our team.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and Khris Middleton (right) celebrate as Eastern Conference champions.

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Before this season, this Bucks team wasn’t able to put it all together at just the right time.

As the team’s production began to rise during the 2017-18 season, when Antetokounmpo started to show flashes of the superstar he would soon become, so did their expectations. The Bucks finished the next two seasons with the best record in the league, but were dispatched from the playoffs early by two hungrier teams that went on to win the East.

They were then, fairly or not, labeled as a “regular-season” team, meaning they could be successful during the regular season, but once the playoffs hit, they didn’t have the mental toughness and/or strategy to be championship caliber.

It also didn’t help that Milwaukee ran into players who decided to go supernova during the playoffs. In 2019, Kawhi “Cyborg” Leonard, on one good leg, snatched the heart from the Bucks as the Toronto Raptors overcame a 2-0 deficit to run off four straight wins on their way to an NBA championship. Last season, inside the Walt Disney World bubble, Jimmy Butler willed the lower-seeded Miami Heat into a second-round upset of the Bucks ahead of their own run to the Finals. Even this postseason, the Bucks had to battle the offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant and Young, at least until the latter’s series-altering ankle injury in Game 3.

In the past, when the pressure reached a precipice, everyone from the coaches to players seemed to falter. Antetokounmpo and Coach Mike Budenholzer couldn’t figure out how to scale the “wall” defenses built. Middleton, while brilliant when he’s on (particularly against the Boston Celtics), would suddenly develop a case of the yips in pivotal postseason moments. Shots that would fall for role players wouldn’t fall anymore, no matter Budenholzer’s “let it fly” mantra.

“It’s adversity,” Pat Connaughton said of losing in the playoffs the past two years. “I would say it’s unfortunate, but you learn a lot from losing. You really look yourself in the mirror and there’s two ways you can go: You can hang your head about it or you can use that as motivation to get better and fix the problems that you have and continue to work every single day and understand that it’s a process.”

But this season and its playoffs were different. The Bucks were more flexible in everything from their roster construction to their offensive sets. Those who couldn’t step up in crunch time in the past were suddenly inheritors of the clutch gene.

“Every team has a different journey and every team has to go through different things,” Budenholzer said. “… I think just like every team in the league, when this group hasn’t been able to advance, hasn’t been able to continue, it’s hurt. It’s been hard. The offseason, the guys have put the work in, the players have put the work in. And I’m impressed with what they have done, really every year, but coming into this year.

“But there’s still work to be done.”

Budenholzer has been heavily criticized over the past two years for his failure to adjust in the playoffs. According to various reports, his job was on the line if the Bucks weren’t able to make tangible progress in the playoffs. But he has made the necessary changes to get his team to the Finals. And it was general manager Jon Horst who helped construct a roster that emphasized both 3-pointers (as he had in the past) but also toughness, both the physical and mental variety.

Portis, who signed to a two-year, $7.5 million deal in November, made all the difference in Game 5 (and had the Fiserv Forum crowd in a frenzy during the blowout in Game 2). Tucker, who was traded to the Bucks in March, played strong defense on Durant in the second round. Jeff Teague, who played for Atlanta for parts of eight seasons, made three 3s in Game 6. Bryn Forbes, who cooled off in the later rounds, outscored Butler in the first round. Connaughton grabbed offensive rebounds and hit timely 3s. Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo, the list goes on.

As for the Bucks’ Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday (acquired in November from the New Orleans Pelicans), each had their mental breakdowns and struggles during both the past and these playoffs, but when the team needed them to help close out games, they showed up: Middleton’s game winner against Miami in the first round, Antetokounmpo in crunch-time minutes against Brooklyn in the second round, and Holiday in the last two games without Antetokounmpo.

The team that could start strong but never finish has finally vanquished that label. And it’s poetic that it was Middleton who led the Bucks to this Finals run.

Middleton has grown from an afterthought in the 2013 trade that shipped Jennings off to Detroit and brought Middleton, Brandon Knight and Viacheslav Kravtsov to the Bucks (Middleton was referred to as one of “two other players” at the time of the trade), to the certified closer on a team that is four wins from winning its first title since 1971.

As the Bucks tanked and rebuilt around Antetokounmpo at the beginning of last decade, Middleton was there for the rough days of sub-.500 records, missed playoffs and lottery picks. Through his game winner against Miami, his dual 38-point games against Brooklyn and Atlanta, and his second-half outburst on Saturday, Middleton sums up just how far these Bucks have come.

“Honestly, it’s been a long journey, but it’s been a great journey,” Middleton said after the game. “It’s been worth it. We put ourselves in position to be in the NBA Finals. After winning 15 games in our first year here and seven years not making the playoffs to the last two years thinking we had a chance and just didn’t do enough and now we’re here.

“This is what we’ve worked for.”

Martenzie is a writer for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"