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2021 NBA Finals

Giannis pulled a ‘Thanos’ and brought Milwaukee its first title in 50 years

Antetokounmpo put the Bucks on his shoulders, scoring 50 in the Finals finale

3:40

There’s a scene at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron where mysterious big baddie Thanos, sick of depending on countless minions to acquire the infinity stones he needs to carry out his plan of human destruction, realizes that if he wants his plan to actually come to fruition, he can only count on himself.

“Fine,” Thanos exclaims as he reaches for the device he needs to harness the power of the infinity stones, “I’ll do it myself.”

While Thanos was trying to cut the world’s population in half, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo appeared to share the Marvel Comics villain’s sentiment that if you want the job done correctly, you have to do it yourself.

In the third quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, with the Bucks trailing 47-42, and his team only able to muster 13 points in the second period, Antetokounmpo put the team on his broad shoulders, scoring 20 of his playoff career-high 50 points in a 105-98 victory that sealed the franchise’s first NBA championship since 1971.

After an and-1 basket to start the period, Antetokounmpo was seen on the Jumbotron mouthing to himself, “c’mon,” perhaps in reaction to being fouled or his team squandering a first-quarter 13-point lead. In any event, after that moment, Antetokounmpo could not be denied. Whether it was calling for the ball to directly attack Suns center Deandre Ayton (who was in foul trouble for most of the second half), floaters, midrange jumpers, an (ill-advised) 3-pointer that hit nothing but net or even free throws, his Achilles’ heel, where he went a perfect 7-for-7 in the third, and 17-for-19 overall.

It was as complete a performance from any player in NBA Finals history, garnering Antetokounmpo the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award, and it was for a franchise and city that have been starving for such success for half a century.

“He was able to put his stamp on the game in the third quarter and flip the score. And then some big plays in the fourth quarter – big plays, big blocks,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It’s hard to keep finding words for Giannis.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the unanimous Finals MVP.

In 1971, just two years removed from the team’s creation, the Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets on their way to an NBA championship behind future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Three years later, the Bucks returned to the Finals, but lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics.

With Abdul-Jabbar, a three-time MVP winner at the time, the Bucks appeared to be building a dynasty, but just a year after the loss to the Celtics, Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. 

“It was exciting. Him [Abdul-Jabbar], Oscar Robertson – it was very exciting,” longtime Bucks fan Charles “Chuck” Hardrick told me back in December about the 1971 championship team. “I was hoping we could win another, but then he left.”

While Coach Don Nelson and his patented “Nellie Ball” kept the franchise afloat during the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning seven consecutive division titles and making it to the Eastern Conference finals three times in the span of four seasons, Milwaukee was never able to replicate the success of the Abdul-Jabbar years. The team bottomed out during the Michael Jordan 1990s, accumulating seven consecutive losing seasons between 1991-92 and 1997-98. Successful draft classes (not counting 1998) during those turbulent years led to the Big Three era of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell. The team made it to within one game of the 2001 NBA Finals, losing in seven games to the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers.

But much like after Abdul-Jabbar left, the Bucks were never able to recover from that 2000-01 season. The next decade and a half were full of botched front-office moves (trading a 27-year-old Allen for an aging Gary Payton), bad luck (No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut dislocating his elbow), or spirited-yet-flawed mandates to field eighth-seed worthy teams rather than outright tank to rebuild.

“Every single season in which our jerseys was green and orange and white – the Christmas colors – I hated it,” 26-year-old Keshown Stewart told The Undefeated outside Fiserv Forum ahead of Game 2 of the Finals. “And we was trash.”

That is until after the 2012-13 season – the “#Bucksin6” season – when the team drafted Antetokounmpo, traded for Khris Middleton, was purchased by a new ownership group, obtained the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft (that didn’t quite work out), and set themselves on a path that led to Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum (which opened in 2018).

That 1971 championship team, in essence, spoiled the city of Milwaukee. Whetting the city’s appetite for success before starving it for decades. And in the post-Abdul-Jabbar era, while each iteration of the team has tasted some form of postseason letdown, save for the 1990s, the early exits from the playoffs the last two seasons have been a special kind of pain that had come to define the entire franchise. After winning a league-best 60 games in 2018-19, avenging the previous season’s postseason loss to the Celtics, and going up 2-0 over the Toronto Raptors, it felt as if the Bucks – like the Golden State Warriors before them – would win a championship during their inaugural coming-out season. But the Raptors built the “Giannis Wall,” the Bucks never adjusted, and the eventual champions ran off four straight games.

The very next season, despite the departure of one of its best players, Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee was on pace to join the Warriors and Chicago Bulls as the only teams to win 70 or more games, winning 52 of its first 60. But then Antetokounmpo, on his way to his second consecutive MVP award, sprained his knee and the coronavirus pandemic shut down the season days later. When the season restarted at Walt Disney World Resort, the Bucks weren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, and the Miami Heat ousted them in five games in the second round of the playoffs.

“The bubble did not pay us justice,” Antetokounmpo said. “Give credit to the Miami Heat. They played great. But they did not pay us justice. Everybody was feeling homesick. We are a family-oriented team and we wanted to see our families.”

At that point, questions needed to be answered: Were Antetokounmpo and Budenholzer just regular-season savants incapable of leading a team to a championship? Were the surrounding pieces for Antetokounmpo on par with that of other superstar players in the league? With free agency less than a year away, would Antetokounmpo stay?

Those questions started to get answered two months later. At the start of free agency, Bucks general manager Jon Horst swung two trades: one for New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday and the other for Sacramento Kings wing Bogdan Bogdanović. But the sign-and-trade agreement with Bogdanović fell through and Bogdanović later signed with the Atlanta Hawks.

That, along with having to trade veteran guard George Hill to acquire Holiday, felt like the Bucks taking one step forward and a giant Eurostep back. With other teams in the league loading up – particularly the Brooklyn Nets and Suns – it seemed as if the Bucks’ window of opportunity had been shut. Regardless, Antetokounmpo signed the most lucrative extension in league history (five years, $228 million).

The start to the season didn’t temper the fears that the Bucks couldn’t maintain their regular-season success. They dropped the season opener to the rival Celtics, started with an 11-8 record, and had a five-game losing streak in the middle of February. (Due to the pandemic, the season didn’t start until Dec. 22.)

But as the Bucks worked through what felt like game-by-game adjustments – adding a “dunker” spot to free up Antetokounmpo when defenses zeroed in on him, using a mix of different defensive looks so opponents couldn’t always rain down 3-pointers on them like a monsoon – they began to resemble a fully rounded team. The five-game losing streak gave way to a five-game win streak, and then an eight-game streak, and then yet another five in a row near the end of the season, including back-to-back wins over the Nets.

Regular-season success this season didn’t matter as much to the team as it did in the two years before, but how the team played – particularly against a loaded Nets team (albeit without James Harden in the lineup for both games) – signaled that the Bucks were finally for real: Antetokounmpo averaged 42.5 points in those two games versus Brooklyn.

And it carried over to the playoffs. The Bucks won a late-season game against the Heat to set up a rematch with the defending East champions in the first round. Four games later and the Bucks sent the Heat home with a case of Michelob Ultra.

The second round, a rubber match with the Nets, was a test of whether the Bucks had actually overcome their mental deficiencies from seasons past. After going down both 2-0 and 3-2, and a costly turnover from Antetokounmpo with 15 seconds remaining in Game 5 that would have tied the score, clutch performances from Antetokounmpo and Middleton willed the Bucks to a historic victory in Game 7. The East finals was more of the same, dropping Game 1 at home to the Atlanta Hawks and dropping a pivotal, Trae Young-less Game 4 that allowed the young Hawks to even the series.

And then Antetokounmpo looked to have blown out his left knee, dampening any remaining faith in a Finals appearance, let alone a championship. But Middleton and Holiday shepherded the Bucks to two straight victories to take the series in six games.

Playing on that hyperextended knee through all six games of the Finals, Antetokounmpo had performance after performance that defied reality. The chase-down block of Mikal Bridges in Game 1. The back-to-back 40-point games in Games 2 and 3. The block of Ayton in Game 4. The alley-oop from Holiday in Game 5. And, of course, the 50-piece in the closeout game on Tuesday night.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) and Khris Middleton (left) have formed the team’s foundation since 2013.

But it wasn’t just Antetokounmpo. Middleton lived up to his role as the team’s closer in nearly every game. Holiday, who struggled offensively for most of the playoffs and series, blanketed Suns guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker through all six games. Brook Lopez manned the paint, and when needed, carried the team himself, as illustrated by his 33-point, four-block performance in Game 5 of the East finals against the Hawks. Fan-favorite Bobby Portis scored 16 points in Game 6 of the Finals, and, along with Pat Connaughton, were leaders of the team’s “Bench Mob.”

Tuesday’s championship wasn’t necessarily 50 years in the making, but it was a long, drawn-out sigh of relief for fans of the team. It was vengeance for so many recent sports losses in the state: the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin football in 2011; Wisconsin basketball in 2015; the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018; the Bucks the past two years. It was a coronation for Antetokounmpo, who was saddled with criticism of not being able to shoot, or having a “bag,” or not having enough to lead a championship team in the playoffs. It was a justification for supposedly giving up “too much” for Holiday. It was a much-warranted celebration of both the story (39th overall pick, G League, throwaway in a trade) and clutchness of Middleton.

“We formed a bond, a brotherhood since that first year we’ve been together,” Middleton said. “We struggled. We struggled together. But we both saw in each other there was no give-up. It was all motivation to be better and not be embarrassed. Year after year we challenged each other to be better. Challenged each other to be better leaders, better teammates.”

Legitimate championship aspirations brought an estimated 65,000 people out to the team’s “Deer District” outside of the arena on Tuesday, showcasing both the stamina (some fans arrived over four hours before tipoff to stand for an additional three) and determination of a fan base that seemed to truly believe in the team’s various mottos over the years: Fear the Deer. Own the Future. History in the Making. Bucks in six.

And it all started with Antetokounmpo. His personal story aside, the big man from Greece (and Nigeria) not only went from obscure first-round pick to collecting NBA accolades like infinity stones, but also matured from believing he had to do it on his own to trusting his coaches and teammates to help him carry the load. He trusted the process, in essence.

And with that, the Bucks are the 2021 champions, a victory so sweet that, even if Milwaukee were to pull a Buffalo Bills and lose the next four NBA Finals, it wouldn’t take away from what happened on Tuesday night, not for the fans or the players.

“Eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal will come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “I’m extremely blessed. If I never have a chance to sit on this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams.”

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