Every championship team in every sport faces adversity. Without it, the journey would be too easy, and nothing in life that’s worth having comes easy.
The Milwaukee Bucks can surely attest to that after capturing their first championship in 50 years with Tuesday night’s 105-98 Game 6 victory against the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks became just the fifth team in NBA Finals history to win the series after dropping the first two contests, and they did it by rattling off four straight victories. And it wasn’t the first time they fell behind this postseason, as they were down 0-2 against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round and lost their Eastern Conference finals opener against the Atlanta Hawks.
“This group,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said, “loves to take the challenge.”
Milwaukee had plenty to prove going into the 2020-21 season. The Bucks earned the East’s top seed the past two years but suffered earlier-than-expected playoff exits, being ousted by the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 East finals and getting eliminated by the Miami Heat in the 2020 East semifinals. The fallout of these postseason failures fell squarely on Budenholzer and All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
Middleton faced criticism of whether he could be a star in this league, but he silenced that talk once and for all this year with his prolific postseason play and countless clutch shots. Milwaukee played the last two games against Atlanta without Antetokounmpo after he sustained a knee injury that looked to be season-ending. Middleton stepped up in his absence, totaling 58 points, 17 rebounds, 15 assists and five steals in Games 5 and 6 to propel the Bucks to the Finals. He also hit the game-winner in the Bucks’ playoff opener against the Heat.
“He played amazing throughout the whole playoffs, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “He led us when I was down. He gave me a chance to come back.”
Even with back-to-back league MVP awards, Antetokounmpo still faced scrutiny about his game, namely his 3-point and free-throw shooting. Those concerns were laid to rest this postseason. Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks against the Suns, capping off his Finals MVP performance with a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece to clinch the series. He also knocked down 17 of 19 free throws.
“It's hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does,” Budenholzer said. “The way he made his free throws, the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership. He has been working on it.
“We say we want Giannis to get to the free-throw line. We believe. We talked about it this past summer. To win a championship, you've got to make free throws and you've got to make shots. He's made shots throughout the playoffs.”
Questions loomed over Antetokounmpo’s future after last year’s abrupt exit from the NBA bubble. He could’ve turned down a contract extension and tested free agency or requested a trade, but instead, he re-upped with Milwaukee for five more years.
“I just, I couldn't leave. There was a job that had to be finished,” Antetokounmpo said. “The bubble did not pay us justice. … But coming back, I was like, ‘This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us.’
“It's easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It's easy. I could go .. I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship.”
The scrutiny on Budenholzer intensified last year after having another top-seeded team get bounced in the playoffs. He has led the Bucks to a 227-162 regular-season record the past three seasons and brought a championship to Milwaukee. With one year remaining on his contract, there’s a good chance team ownership will keep him around for a couple more years.
“The thing I like, he challenged us all,” Middleton said of Budenholzer. “I think we challenged him in certain ways to help us, but for the main part, he challenged us every day to be leaders, to fight through adversity, to change our games a little bit. Like I said, it's all worth it.”
“We've been pushing and trying to get better,” Budenholzer said. “The players embrace everything. They are amazingly coachable. They take it and soak it in, and they have made the best of it. They have done that from day one this year. So, I'm happy for the players. I'm impressed by them every day.”