NBA Finals: How the Bucks got here

Published July 5, 2021, 6:42 PMMiguel Flores

Reaching the NBA Finals has been a long time coming for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Milwaukee Bucks hated adversity. For all the merits of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, coach Mike Budenhozer's unique system, or Khris Middleton's clutchness, the Bucks used to flinch at every inconvenience.

They were heavy favorites going into the two previous postseasons. In 2019, the Bucks held a 2-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the second round. The Raptors made the sole major adjustment of putting Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo and effectively stifled the whole Bucks offense. Milwaukee ended up losing four straight games. 

Coming off another MVP season from Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were again seen as the best team in the East last season. Going up against the less-heralded Miami Heat in the second round of the bubble playoffs, the Bucks were supposed to be overwhelming favorites. Through a Giannis-proof wall defense, the Heat stumped the Bucks. The lasting image from that series is Budenhozer’s devastated reaction to the Bucks blowing a late lead in Game 2. No adjustments came from the Bucks. Early playoff exits were becoming routine.

There was no reason to expect anything different from the Bucks in 2021. They had the same coach and core players, with the one major upgrade in Jrue Holiday. The first sign things were going to be different was the Bucks’ absolute annihilation of the Heat in the first round as if they were saying they had slain their past demons. The second round could have been the end of the line again for Milwaukee, but they weathered Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets to finally advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Atlanta Hawks were a feisty team but were probably too young and inexperienced to take down a squad like the Bucks, who had to overcome all the aforementioned challenges just to reach this level. Holding a 2-1 series lead, the Bucks could have folded when Giannis injured his left leg. There was no way he was playing again in this series. There was no way the Bucks could overcome this… right?

Not having Giannis to rely on to dominate the game kicked the Bucks' sense of urgency up a notch. In the pivotal Game 5, Milwaukee rallied behind Brook Lopez and a staunch defensive effort right from the first possession to overwhelm the Hawks. Game 6 was primed for another Hawks win with the return of Trae Young, but the Bucks weren’t going to be denied. Reaching for the superstar powers that he's often unleashed in these playoffs, Middleton poured in 23 third-quarter points to bury the Hawks.

These pockets of greatness were what eluded the Bucks in their previous playoff runs. It was inevitable that, at some point, the moment was going to become too big and the pressure too much for Milwaukee to overcome. The tactical question marks were also very real for a squad adamant about things that should be adjusted come playoff time, like their drop cover and player minutes.

It took a couple of brutal playoff exits, but this year the Bucks switched on defense when they needed to and ran with their best guys for as long as they could, as often as they needed to. When the big games came, their players rose to the occasion. They faced their biggest challenge yet as a team not having Giannis to close out the Hawks, yet they still persisted.

This was an entirely different Bucks team from what we've become accustomed to. Now, we just have to hope Giannis is healthy for the finals so we can have the most fun seven-game series since 2016.


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