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The Bucks are betting on déjà vu


Giannis Antetokounmpo is in his 10th season with the Milwaukee Bucks. The team’s patience with his development has paid off.

By Scott Cacciola


After Khris Middleton spent his first season in professional basketball with the Detroit Pistons and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Development League, he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. At the time, he was merely hoping for steady employment.


A few weeks later, when Middleton arrived in Milwaukee for training camp before the start of the 2013-14 season, he was not the only fresh face. He was joined by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a precocious draft pick who proudly professed his love for fruit smoothies and was similarly awestruck to be in the presence of veteran teammates like Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo and Zaza Pachulia.


“They were basketball gods to us at the time,” Middleton said, “just because they’d been so successful in the league for so many years, and we were trying to learn everything we could from them.”


Even then, Middleton was savvy enough to understand that it would take time to build winning habits. Milwaukee went 15-67 that season to finish with the worst record in the league while ranking last in home attendance. The Bucks were not a product that many people wanted to buy.


“It wasn’t going to be an overnight success story,” Middleton said. “We settled in for the long haul.”


Last Thursday night, as the Bucks christened their new season with a 90-88 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, their days of hard-won habit-building were the stuff of ragged memories. Milwaukee has made six straight playoff appearances, winning a championship in 2021, and figures to be in the mix to win it all again this season.


It helps that Antetokounmpo is one of the best players in the world. After a busy summer that included the release of “Rise,” a Disney+ biopic about his life, and a run in the EuroBasket tournament with Greece’s national team, Antetokounmpo crammed 21 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists into 36 minutes against the 76ers.


“They know how to play with their star,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said.


But that only comes with continuity, patience and stability — concepts that are increasingly foreign in pro sports.


Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been with the Bucks since the dark ages. Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton, two other members of the team’s core, came to Milwaukee before the start of the 2018-19 season, which was also Mike Budenholzer’s first season as coach. And 14 of the 17 players on the current roster were with the team last season. One of them, Wesley Matthews, made the go-ahead 3-pointer against Philadelphia.


“I think it helps us to start the season when other teams have new players, new additions, new coaching staff — all those kinds of changes,” Matthews said. “For the most part, we’re the same team. So being in moments like this, we’ve been there before.”


Now in his 15th season, Lopez has played for teams where it took time “to figure stuff out,” he said — where players needed weeks or even months to feel comfortable in new systems, where training camps included exercises designed to enhance chemistry.


“They’re good things, and that’s why people do them,” Lopez said. “But we don’t necessarily need to make people do team bonding or anything like that. It’s very natural around here. We have people hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, and we’re all glad to be a part of this.”


Not that the Bucks have been immune to disappointment. In 2018-19, they had the league’s best regular-season record, then lost to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. It was more of the same the following season: best record, early exit (this time to the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals).


“We were disappointed in ourselves,” Lopez said. “We knew we had more to give and more to achieve as a group. We knew we could be better.”


After a period of uncertainty for the team and collective anxiety for the Milwaukee area, Budenholzer returned as coach, the Bucks bolstered their backcourt by trading for Jrue Holiday, and Antetokounmpo agreed to a mammoth contract extension. Several months later, the Bucks were NBA champions for the first time since 1971.


“The fact that the franchise stuck with us and kept the team together shows that they believed in what they were trying to build,” Middleton said. “And we all wanted to stay and get the job done.”


The Bucks have that feeling again after losing to the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals last season. It hardly helped that Middleton missed the series with a knee injury. And they are not yet whole this season, either: Middleton is rehabilitating from wrist surgery, and Connaughton has a strained calf.


Still, the Bucks have their foundation in place.


“We’re not talking about our basic defensive or offensive principles,” Connaughton said. “Everybody already knows them. Instead, we’re talking about how to improve.”


This is a critical season for Milwaukee. Lopez is in the final season of a four-year deal, and Middleton, who signed a five-year contract with the Bucks in 2019, has a player option for next season. Their futures are uncertain. But nothing lasts forever, and the Bucks want to capitalize while they can. It has taken a long time for them to reach this stage, to have so much familiarity with one another.


“It’s rare,” Middleton said. “It’s definitely rare.”


On Thursday morning, as the team wrapped up a pregame workout, Middleton was accosted by Joe Ingles, one of the team’s newcomers. After edging Middleton in a friendly shooting competition, Ingles wanted to make sure everyone knew it: “We’ve got 81 more games, and it’s 1-0 to Joe.”


Middleton shook his head and laughed.


“This,” he said, “is one of the reasons I wish we didn’t make any changes.”

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