Bucks win their 2nd NBA title, 50 years after their 1st

By Sopan Deb

A half century ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a young goliath then known as Lew Alcindor — led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship. For decades, it was the only time the franchise had reached that height.

That is, until now.

On Tuesday night, the Bucks capped off their return to greatness. They are once again led by a behemoth with unique skill, this one a 26-year-old player from Greece nicknamed the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. On its home court, Milwaukee defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to win its second championship and complete a grueling NBA season of injuries and coronavirus pandemic disruptions.

“This should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams,” a jubilant Antetokounmpo, who is also of Nigerian descent, said after the game. He added, “I hope I give people around the world from Africa, from Europe, give them hope that it can be done. Eight and a half years ago, before I came into the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street.”

Antetokounmpo turned in one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history, scoring 50 points — a playoff career high — and adding 14 rebounds. Like he has for most of his career, Antetokounmpo bullied his way to the basket using an array of spin moves and brute force. Even from the free-throw line, where he has struggled, he was nearly perfect, going 17 for 19. He was also a force on the defensive end, blocking five shots. By the time the final buzzer sounded, there was no doubt who would be named the Most Valuable Player of the series.

“Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t be or what you cannot do,” Antetokounmpo said. “People told me I can’t make free throws. I made my free throws tonight. And I’m a freaking champion.”

The Suns kept the decisive game competitive in the second half. Chris Paul, Phoenix’s 36-year-old star point guard, scored 26 points. Devin Booker, the scoring dynamo for the Suns, struggled, scoring 19 points on 22 shots. For Paul, the loss was particularly gutting, as a perennial All-Star in his 16th season still searching for his elusive championship.

“It’s tough,” Paul said. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”

Bobby Portis, a reserve forward for Milwaukee and a fan favorite known for his demonstrative exhortations, had 16 points off the bench. The crowd chanted his name every time he scored.

The championship was the peak of a remarkable rise for Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. He entered the NBA as a rail-thin prospect, drafted outside of the top 14 picks, a grouping known as the lottery that is seen as a signifier of impending stardom. He has since established himself as one of the best players in Bucks history.

Antetokounmpo won a championship in his eighth season, filling the last glaring hole on a resume that includes five All-Star selections and a Defensive Player of the Year Award. Top stars are often judged by the number of championship rings they have and how they won them. Antetokounmpo won his title with the franchise that drafted him, in an NBA era when the best players are often on the move.

In the previous two seasons, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and were eliminated in the playoffs before the finals, raising questions about whether Antetokounmpo could be the one to truly elevate the team. Opponents exploited his below-average shooting ability.

Entering this season, there were murmurs that he might leave the Bucks in free agency. Instead, Antetokounmpo bet on Milwaukee in a big way in December by signing a so-called supermax extension worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. He then delivered a dominant playoff run, putting to rest any doubts about his superstar status.

“This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us,” Antetokounmpo said. “Even when we lost the series, they were on our side. Obviously, I wanted to get the job done.”

Antetokounmpo then spoke about the “easy” decision by some NBA stars to leave in free agency or ask for trades so that they could team up with other stars.

“I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship,” he said, adding, “But this is the hard way to do it.”

He pounded the table for emphasis.

It helped that Milwaukee gambled and traded for Jrue Holiday, a well-regarded versatile player without the pedigree of perennial All-Star appearances. The Bucks sent a package to New Orleans typically reserved for a bona fide star, including multiple veterans and several draft picks. The gamble paid off: Holiday provided Antetokounmpo with strong help on both sides of the ball when the Bucks needed it most, particularly with a 27-point, 13-assist performance in Game 5.

During the regular season, the Bucks finished third in the East, behind the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers. Milwaukee was aided in part by the health of its key players, who largely avoided major injuries and coronavirus infections. In March, the Bucks traded with Houston to acquire P.J. Tucker, an experienced forward with a reputation as a tough defender and reliable shooter.

However, Milwaukee’s playoff run seemed on the verge of collapse on several occasions. Once again, coach Mike Budenholzer, in his third season with the Bucks, came under withering scrutiny about his struggles to make adjustments against strong defenses or to come up with more creative ways to use Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton, a two-time All-Star, once again faced questions about whether he was a good enough deputy to Antetokounmpo, given his inconsistent postseason shooting.

“It’s hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does,” Budenholzer said. “He’s off the charts.”

After the buzzer Tuesday, an emotional Antetokounmpo embraced former Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who played in the NBA from 2009 to 2018 and was briefly Antetokounmpo’s teammate. It was Jennings who once famously predicted with gusto that Milwaukee would defeat the more-talented Miami Heat in six games in a 2013 playoff series. The wildly inaccurate prediction has become a rallying cry for Milwaukee’s fan base and made Jennings a sort of cult hero.

Fans chanted “Bucks in six!” throughout the series. Those chants were deafening after the game, as the audience was elated that Jennings’s prophecy had, in some way, finally come true.

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