Just in case there was any lingering doubt, the Milwaukee Bucks spent Sunday night articulating their championship case in painstaking detail.
This is what a trophy run looks like: withstanding the opening jolt of a Hawks team soaring at home, and then dismantling the 15-point lead Atlanta had built, stop by stop; working the paint—and the standing advantage of Giannis Antetokounmpo—consistently but not carelessly; meeting the creative brilliance of Trae Young with staunch, flexible defense, and learning to live with the inevitability of his scoring; getting a bit lucky, as Young’s unfortunate turned ankle worked to Milwaukee’s benefit; then making their own luck through hustle, finding opportunity where there should be none; turning up critical minutes from a much-maligned supporting cast on a rotating basis, this time from Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis; letting go of the way they wanted to play to embrace the way they had to; switching tenaciously; attacking patiently; seizing every fast-break point they could; and when it came down to it, feeding the hot hand of Khris Middleton until the flames engulfed everything, remaking the series in the scorched earth of Milwaukee’s 113-102 win.
“During the postseason, we’ve realized that each game is a different game, and each game matters,” Middleton said. “You can’t look ahead or look behind; you have to move on.”
In the end, it didn’t matter that the Bucks’ shooters had largely gone cold in Game 3 or that the easy transition buckets that fueled their previous blowout win had largely dried up. Milwaukee still had all the answers it needed to claim a 2-1 lead, in part because it had Middleton—who put up 38 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists on the night and managed to outscore Atlanta on his own (20-17) in the decisive fourth quarter. “What I saw today was unbelievable, and it was greatness,” Antetokounmpo said of his teammate’s closeout performance. “Simple as that.”
While true, this was only the latest demonstration of that greatness, and of the timely play that makes the Bucks the contenders they are. Navigating the fourth quarter of a close game requires more fluid judgment than Milwaukee just handing the ball to its most complete scorer in Middleton. If there’s a single reason to believe that the Bucks will continue on—not only potentially past the Hawks but perhaps through whichever team makes it out of the Western Conference—it’s that their three stars have found alignment within their own basketball universe, expanding and contracting in their roles and in concert with one another. That starts with the allowances made by Antetokounmpo, who has been dominant in this series but never insistent.
“I have the whole game to be the guy,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t care about the end of the fourth quarter. Whoever wants to be the guy in the fourth quarter—Khris or Jrue [Holiday] or P.J. [Tucker] or Bobby [Portis] or Bryn [Forbes] or whoever the case might be—and help us win the game, that’s what I care about. I trust Khris to death. If Khris asks for the ball, better give him the ball.”
As exceptional as Middleton’s shot-making was Sunday—at one point in the fourth, he popped off 11 points in less than two minutes—the idea that a former two-time MVP would so happily empower him feels just as notable. Antetokounmpo has had some monster performances in these playoffs, most notably a knock-down, drag-out, 40-point effort to send the Nets home in Game 7 of the second round. Even in this game, he punished the Hawks with 33 points and 11 rebounds, first by working Clint Capela and then by preying on Atlanta’s smaller second unit with a procession of cuts and drives. Yet still Antetokounmpo faces an undeniable pressure to deliver in the specific way other superstars do—to dominate as LeBron and Durant have, and as champions did for generations before them.
In a perfect world, maybe Giannis would. But in the one we’ve got, he’ll be Milwaukee’s alpha and nobly practical omega, ever discerning of his moment. A player as proud as Antetokounmpo would surely relish the opportunity to put the ghosts of his playoff past to rest by taking control of the offense and, with it, his basketball legacy. With the way the crowd in Atlanta taunted him through his drawn-out free throw routine, surely he would have loved to hit the shots that sent the building into stunned silence. Instead, Antetokounmpo has shown a remarkable humility in allowing both Middleton and Holiday to initiate offense on some of the team’s most important possessions, trusting not only in them but also in the impact he can still have on the game. An offense that was once set by doctrine is now guided by feel.
“When it comes down to it, I don’t think it matters to us who makes the play,” Holiday said earlier this season. “Just as long as it’s made.”
How those possessions go all depends on which of Milwaukee’s stars has, to quote Holiday, the juice. Middleton had it and then some in Game 3, his cup full to the brim. And afterward, Antetokounmpo smiled wide as he recounted his teammate’s most incredible buckets, and the evolution he’s seen in his friend and teammate over their eight seasons together in Milwaukee. “It’s great seeing this guy, with the way we started [and] the way we are, where he started and where he is right now closing games,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what we need from Khris. We need him to be aggressive. We need him to take over games and make good decisions, and play off him.” There is something both earnest and pragmatic about Giannis’s particular version of stardom. There are some occasional lapses, but even throughout these playoffs, we’ve seen a growing acceptance in his shot selection—an increasing focus toward what he does best, no matter how much he’d like to punish defenses with every long jumper they dare him to take.
Part of his journey has come from learning that he doesn’t have to. That there are other ways to win. Even when the pressure builds and the crowd jeers and the entire history of the sport seems to demand he be something he’s not—at least not yet—Antetokounmpo can find his own way to be the defining element of a championship-level team. That was never just about Giannis, but about how Middleton could rise to the biggest moments, how Holiday could bring everything to balance, and how the right combination of role players could turn a game by fighting for the fate of every possession. We know it because we’re seeing it in real time: the vision of what Milwaukee always hoped it could be, brought now to glittering life.