It was exactly 50 years ago that Milwaukee won their first NBA title, and since then, it’s taken 50 different formations of the Bucks for them to finally receive their second one.
This year’s champion wasn’t an instant success story like we’ve seen in the past couple of seasons. They also weren’t a super team of All-Stars like we’ve seen in a few years back. The Bucks were a long journey waiting to end, building from the very bottom with young talent and slowly ascending towards the very top.
It is, however, surprising that THIS was the year it all came together for Milwaukee. In 2019, they were primed for glory with the Coach of the Year, the MVP, and a loaded 60-win roster, and despite home-court advantage, they blew their 2-0 lead in the Conference Finals. In 2020, they came back even stronger with the same MVP, the Defensive Player of the Year, and a deeper experienced bench, and despite being heavily favored, they shockingly fell apart against the Miami Heat in the Semi-Finals.
2021 brought a major change at point guard, a depleted reserve unit, a less imposing defense, and a head coach on the hot seat. Sliding down to the 3-seed meant they lost home-court advantage and earned a potential doomsday matchup with the title-favorite Nets in the Semi-Finals. They also drew their worst nightmare, the Miami Heat, in the very first round. And yet, they actually prevailed…
The Bucks absolutely torched the Heat, no pun intended, and after four games ferociously ran towards the dangerous Nets team. They were incredibly fortunate to not play against a healthy James Harden, and Kyrie Irving for the last three games, and while they still came within inches, literally, from being sent home, they managed to escape Game 7 on the road with a victory. Their backs were against the wall versus a tenacious Hawks team, but they preserved without their top gun and finally clinched a trip to the NBA Finals.
There was just one team standing in their way in their quest for an NBA title, but the opponent they matched up against had stood tall pretty much all year long. Phoenix, coming off a ten-year playoff drought, remarkably soared to the league’s elite and made it all the way to the final round. They had an all-time great playmaker chasing his first ring, a young superstar seeking legendary status, a very skilled rising star wing, a vengeful three-point assassin, an energetic and explosive pair of bench players, and a punishing athletic center.
After dropping the first two without much of a fight, Milwaukee managed to push its way back to a tie, and then went on a rampage to win it all in six games. As underdogs, who fans loved to watch crumble and who members of the media were anticipating their usual collapse, they triumphed.
But what helped them finally seal the deal, you may ask? They turned their biggest cognitive weakness into their greatest psychological asset: Fear. Let’s evaluate how the Bucks created a combination of fear that led them to their second championship.
- Crashing the Glass
Almost all of the recent champions had been exceptional on both ends of the court, thanks to elite 3-point shooting and elite athleticism. Milwaukee certainly shined on offense and defense, and those were important ingredients throughout the year, but a fundamental element that carried them over the top this particular time was rebounding.
The Bucks ranked 2nd in that mark during the regular season because of their athletic guards, such as Donte DiVincenzo (5.8), and their size in the frontcourt. They substantially won in the glass-cleaning department throughout the postseason, first by thunderously crashing the paint to prevent Miami from gaining another psychological edge, and second by leveraging their length inside to prevent Brooklyn from taking any more three-pointers. Third, they all put in efforts to box out to prevent Atlanta from getting easy put-backs, and fourth they chased every missed shot to assert their will over the young Suns squad.
Strong rebounding was pretty much a given thanks to the MVP and his oversized co-star, yet the influx of a gritty point guard and a hard-working big gave them an edge they were missing in years past. It not only bolstered their tough rim protection, but it elevated their scoring with more brutalizing second chance, and third chance, and even fourth chance, opportunities.
- Ripping and Dishing the Ball
Championships require effort, hustle, focus, and the will to sacrifice, things that hold even the most skilled and deep teams back. Milwaukee had been supremely skilled on the defensive end and knew to find the open man on the offensive end for years, but this time they took their grit and unselfishness to another level.
The Bucks’ front office did a tremendous job in the last few years upgrading their core, which improved their toughness and opened up their offense. 2018 summer-signee Brook Lopez (13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG in the playoffs) was a beautiful center to pair with the MVP in the frontcourt, illustrated by his 50-50 ball snagging and tipping, and his swing-passes back out to the perimeter. 2020 offseason-acquisition Jrue Holiday (8.7 APG, 1.7 SPG in the playoffs) was a gem stepping in at the point, stripping and tearing the ball away from elite ball-handlers, and finding open teammates north, south, east, and west. 2021 mid-season pickup P.J. Tucker (4.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG in the playoffs) was the final piece missing in the starting lineup, who ripped away and lunged for loose balls and was special in making the extra pass.
It was difficult but the Bucks managed to out-hustle the Heat, keep up with the Nets, pressure the Hawks, and eventually shake the Suns. Their commitment to giving it all they had every play and making the right passes to higher-percentage shots made them one heck-of-a-force and lifted them over their opponents.
- Scaring off the Bench
No matter how strong the starting five might be, champions continue to learn the unquestionable value of the supporting cast coming off the bench. Milwaukee has thrived for the past few years offensively thanks to an endless stream of scoring, but this year provided a simple trio that actually performed better than previously deep units.
The Bucks had very little room to add this past offseason because they were so heavily invested in their four best players ($99 million in salary), yet they still found gold by using a rotation spot for a one-dimensional guard, taking a flyer on an emotional big, and spending future money to retain a shooting wing. Bryn Forbes (15.0 PPG, 16-33 3PT) annihilated the Heat and helped space the floor for the team’s slashers, Bobby Portis (12.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) stepped up huge in the MVP’s absence and was a spark plug when the starters began to cool down, and Pat Connaughton (9.2 PPG, 15-34 3PT) was magnificent in the Finals and provided knockdown shooting that saved many offensive possessions.
The four big guns carried the group all year long and played outstanding throughout the playoffs, but in each series, they needed a boost off the bench to finally put their opponent to rest. Management couldn’t afford another slip up in the playoff rotation, and this year provided its toughest financial challenge yet, however the top trio was able to execute in returning the favor and aligning their strengths to help build a monster.
- Devastating Jump Shooter
All champions in history are vaguely remembered by one dominant individual performance, and what gets lost is the play of a secondary star that was critical in the team’s conquest. Milwaukee has been a fascinating tale of debating whether their MVP had enough talent to go all the way with, but this year ended that narrative for good as it became clear that even the MVP had flaws to his game.
The Bucks acquired their second star as a complementary addition to a trade back in 2013 and had no idea what was in store as they started to turn their franchise around. Khris Middleton (23.6 / 5.1 / 7.6 in the playoffs) quickly became their greatest offensive weapon, source of outside shooting, and tag-team partner along with their up-and-coming superstar. He helped lift the Bucks to the #1 record in the league but had kept coming up short when the team needed him most; however, this campaign he stepped up marvelously with on-demand scoring, positive passing, and clutch shooting.
The MVP has made many exits over the years with lots of criticism for not being able to shoot like other stars, and what ultimately changed his season finish was his co-star’s undeniable 3-point shooting versus the Heat, indefensible shot-making off-the-dribble versus the Nets, tremendous playmaking to his teammates versus the Hawks, and heroic ball-sinking late in games versus the Suns. The Bucks made a surprising move betting huge long-term on their quiet All-Star, but Middleton’s postseason play this year was thunderous as he endlessly broke the hearts of defenses and fan bases.
- The Freak of Nature
There’s a long list of all-time greats who haven’t won an NBA championship, and in today’s game, the feat is nearly impossible for superstars who can’t shoot and attack from all levels. Milwaukee was finally able to develop an MVP talent yet he annually succumbed to defenses exposing his limitations, but in these playoffs, he broke through his own glass ceiling and dominated his opponents with old-style play.
The Bucks spent the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft on an international prospect with lots of potential, and through perseverance battling as a scrawny young talent, dedication bulking up as an interior threat, and hard work developing as an all-around playmaker, he became the new face of the franchise and a perennial MVP candidate. Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (30.2 / 12.8 / 5.1 in the playoffs) led the Bucks from rock bottom to the tippy top of the Eastern Conference, becoming an explosive offensive unit that could punish teams on the defensive end, and their strong play emanated directly from their unselfishness, unstoppable superstar. The last two postseason runs ended too early when their top dog fell apart due to abysmal free throw shooting, clamps on defense, and a new coaching concept called “The Wall”, however, this year’s run had a much different result because their top dog was increasingly confident at the line, patient finding the greatest looks, and imposing amongst the greatest rim protectors.
In his astounding 2021 playoff campaign, Giannis broke the psyche of the unbreakable Heat, took over the scoreboard and ruled the Nets, pulled back the wings of the high-rising Hawks, and darkened the sky against the shining Suns. He dominated the paint of every arena he played in, made slashing lanes against whatever defenses arranged in front of him, swarmed to the ball no matter how far or how high, and imploded the most mentally sound units as an absolute freak of nature.
Milwaukee was another terrific story, not told quite often, of a franchise broken down at the bottom and overtime molding into a team worthy of a championship. They drafted the perfect star for their organization, developed a wonderful talent ahead of the modern NBA, reworked their starting cast to always keep moving ahead, and added the right contributors to finish their long puzzle.
Although there were many times over the last couple seasons the high-seeded Bucks looked inferior, due to an ungritty bench, a shot-happy point guard, a skill-limited scorer, and a star who couldn’t shoot. Above all, the Bucks kept falling to teams that were emotionally tougher and struck fear into their hearts.
Even though there were three rounds in which they appeared to be on their way out, facing a major break-up in the locker room and on the coach’s bench, Milwaukee pushed through to come back in each series and became locked-in like they never had before. They beautifully brought about each deer’s strengths, stormed their nemesis as an immovable herd, and rose to new heights thanks to a freakish creature.
The Bucks turned around their Achilles heel, emphatically ending their long journey and culminating with a championship. They created fear in their opponents and ran off into the night.