The sun shone bright in Milwaukee on Wednesday morning. A fair portion of the town’s constituents probably woke up with a beer-induced hangover but also, a smile. For the first time in fifty years, longer than the majority of their lifetimes, their Milwaukee Bucks were NBA champions.
A team that had perennially fallen short and a cast of characters that, until Tuesday night, had criticism rain down upon them from every opinionated basketball fan (present company included), happily and collectively raised a middle finger to us all. In the coming months, a championship ring will reside on the finger right next to it.
The critiques were constant and unrelenting. Up until Tuesday night, their MVP’s game, while mighty, was still flawed. Khris Middleton was not the consistent, complimentary player his MVP needed him to be. Jrue Holiday was not the key free agent valuable enough to push Milwaukee over the hump. Mike Budenholzer was not a coach who could adapt on the fly… and he never wore a blazer.
Guess who’s wearing the green jacket now.
Like a well-plotted movie, even for the neutral basketball fan, it was so rewarding to watch this team come into its own, finally finding an identity and its own way to win, etching themselves into the annals of NBA history, of our national history. For the Bucks fan, however, this meant so much more. And like any great film, when the final votes were tallied, two-time MVP (and now Finals MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks walked away with a clean sweep of all the hardware: Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director.
I have two friends that are, believe it or not, Milwaukee Bucks fans. I know, you’ve probably never met one, which is surprising considering nearly 70,000 of them stood outside the Fiserv Forum’s Deer District the night of Game Six waiting to celebrate. Those in their twenties, thirties and even early forties had never seen this happen. My friends sat there still in disbelief, experiencing a joy they’d never known, recalling names of players who over the years had always fallen short, men who had played in a Bucks uniform but never come close. None of that mattered anymore.
The most significant Buck, the one never more appropriately referred to as the Greek Freak, scored 50 points in an NBA Finals game. That total tied the most points ever scored in a game of that magnitude. Bob Pettit was the only other man to perform such a feat. That’s more than Michael Jordan. That’s more than Wilt Chamberlain. That’s more than anyone. Giannis is only 26 years old, which is a frightening thought to anyone today not wearing Good Land green.
Of the countless flaws we’ve criticized Giannis for, perhaps the biggest was his free throw shooting. We’d routinely seen him shoot in the fifty and sixty percentile range. His timing had gotten so bad that fouling him intentionally and putting him on the line became a legitimate defensive strategy for opposing teams. So, what did Giannis do in a season-clinching game? He shot 17-of-19 from the free throw line. “I made my free throws!” he exhaled at his post-game press conference, trophies in hand, tears still drying from his eyes.
His Game Six stat line led like a ticker tape parade of historical greatness, one that Bucks fans will be reciting for years to come: 50 points, 16-of-25 from the field, the aforementioned guard-like 89% from the stripe, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. He was a man playing among boys, far and away the most dominant player on the floor. While no man can win a title by himself, it was at that moment when Giannis told his entire team, his entire franchise, his entire city to get on his back and let him own that championship. He did just that.
It really was a fascinating story to watch, the evolution of an extremely likeable and humble player, one who foresaw his destiny and became resolute into making it a reality. If you don’t like Giannis, that’s a “you” problem and will be for some time to come as his name, and his performance, will forever be etched into NBA history.
He became one of only three men to win a Finals MVP, a regular season MVP and a defensive player of the year award. The other two are Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. That, my friends, is elite company.
The story of a superstar staying with a small market franchise and winning a title in a big market league, the story of a superstar wanting to stay put with the people who had faith enough to draft him, fifteenth overall for the record back in 2013, is what NBA dreams are made of and why so many basketball purists love guys like Giannis and Steph Curry and resent guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Bucks fans also recognize this team was centimeters away from their dream not becoming a reality and for the criticisms to linger for another season. In Game Seven of their series against the Brooklyn Nets, Kevin Durant took, and made, what he thought was a three-pointer. It was not. His foot was, as John McEnroe would say, clearly on the line. The game would remind tied instead of the Nets taking a one-point lead. And the rest, as they say, is history. Like ill-fated rosters past, that no longer matters.
A lot of things had to go right for the Bucks to win this Finals, the most important of those being them finding their identity, learning what they’re good at and doing that the most, recognizing what they’re bad at and doing that the least and having the discipline to make those adjustments all the while.
They did that to the tune of an NBA championship. With most of their roster remaining intact will be a force in this league for more years to come.
Pinch yourselves, Bucks fans! The Deer is feared!