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The Bucks Dared to Dream. Now They’ve Almost Realized the Biggest One.

The Deer have ditched the headlights from past postseasons for high-beam highlights in this one. Milwaukee is one win away from its first title in 50 years, all because it has shown a willingness to push its chips into the middle.

2021 NBA Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v. Phoenix Suns Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Winning demands audacity—the willingness to take huge gambles and throw caution to the wind, because the handsome reward is worth the risk of going broke. For example: Shelling out five first-round picks and a nine-figure contract extension for a player who’s never made an All-NBA team is audacious.

Doing it in the hope that it will convince your reigning two-time Most Valuable Player to look past consecutive disappointing postseason defeats and re-up for the next half-decade is audacious. Believing it will provide the upgrade you need to succeed where previous iterations of your team have failed—this despite the fact that your desired target has made it out of the first round only twice in 11 pro seasons, and never out of the second round? Audacious.

Sometimes, though, big wagers pay off in big ways. Like, say, when your MVP does re-up. Or when, seven months later, he connects with the dude for whom you traded that generation of draft picks to co-author the most audacious play the NBA Finals has seen since … well, Wednesday.

An absurd roller-coaster ride of a Game 5 came down to this: one possession, one play, with the game, and potentially the title, in the balance. (Teams that take a 3-2 lead in the Finals have gone on to win the series nearly 81 percent of the time.) With just over 20 seconds remaining, Devin Booker, having already secured his second straight 40-point game, attacked P.J. Tucker off the dribble, and looked for daylight to loft up a would-be game-winner.

But Tucker and a rotating Giannis Antetokounmpo walled off Booker’s path, and as he attempted to reverse field, he instead turned right into Jrue Holiday—the magnet-handed boogeyman whose defensive work has irrevocably shifted this series.

“We came out and did what we intended to do, get off to a great start,” Booker said after the game. “And we let it go.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another: Holiday and Co. ripped it right out of their goddamn hands, strong-arming the Suns for a 123-119 victory—the first road win of the series—to take control of these Finals. The scene now shifts to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Tuesday; the Bucks will have the chance to win the franchise’s first NBA championship in 50 years, thanks to one of the greatest two-way crunch-time connections you’ll ever see in a game of this magnitude.

It’s remarkable that Giannis finished the alley-oop at sprinter’s speed while being shoved by a desperate Chris Paul; it’s downright incredible, though, that Holiday even threw that lob. I mean that in both senses of the word: It was astonishingly beautiful, and also a play that literally strains credulity, because who in the world has the balls to throw that pass in that moment?

“There’s a lot of guys that would dribble it out and try to waste more time,” Bucks reserve Pat Connaughton told reporters after the game. “But he knew the time, he knew the score, and he knew a bucket would kind of be a backbreaker.”

That sounds good, Pat ... except that Holiday himself said that playing it safe and dribbling it out was “what I was going to do.” Until, that is, he saw the big fella pointing skyward.

“Chris [Paul], I think, kind of played in between, but Giannis took off and he was calling for the ball,” Holiday said. “So at that point, I just threw it as high as I could, and only where Giannis could go get it.”

Antetokounmpo admitted after the game, with a laugh, that he didn’t know what he was thinking—why he’d called for the lob rather than just fanning out and letting Holiday run clock. He knew what he was thinking after Jrue set him up, though.

“He trusted me,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “After the game, I was like, ‘Thank you for trusting me.’ He could throw it and make a wrong pass and that would be on him as the point guard. The coach would say, ‘You’re supposed to keep the ball.’ But he trusted me, and he knows I’m going to finish the play. That says a lot to me.”

The play says a lot about the level of confidence Holiday (and everybody else) has in Antetokounmpo, who continues to turn this series into a celebration of his sui generis combination of playmaking skills, physical gifts, and sheer relentlessness. (Seriously: The man went 4-for-11 from the free throw line in the fifth game of a tied Finals, and he did so much other stuff so well that it didn’t even matter.) What preceded the play, though—specifically how Milwaukee got up off the mat after Phoenix came out throwing haymakers—says a lot about who the Bucks are, and how far they’ve come.

The Bucks have earned their scars; they’ve taken their lumps, but they’ve also learned their lessons, and they’re proving that they’ve come out stronger on the other side. The team that blew a 2-0 lead with four straight losses to the Raptors in 2019 and that got embarrassed by the Heat in the bubble is now steely enough to win a Game 7 on the road in overtime, to withstand the loss of their best player in the Eastern Conference finals, and to survive a game-opening onslaught that saw Phoenix make 11 straight shots and jump out to a 16-point lead in the first quarter of The Pivotal Game 5™ of the NBA Finals.

“I think they have been in a lot of close games. It’s a very mature group,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters. “There’s a lot of confidence … They made every shot in the first quarter. We felt like it could balance out.”

It did, due partly to Phoenix’s complementary players missing a bunch of shots early in the second quarter, when Booker and Deandre Ayton went to the bench. Most of it, though, was due to Holiday, who forcefully brought the game to balance in the second quarter:

Despite missing 16 of his 20 attempts in Game 4, he confidently stepped into shots from the perimeter Saturday. He aggressively—though not too aggressively, after picking up two quick fouls—looked to get into the paint to create scoring chances. He scored or assisted on 27 of Milwaukee’s 43 points in the second quarter, brilliantly orchestrating an offense that Phoenix absolutely could not stop: The Bucks scored a blistering 135.2 points per 100 possessions on Saturday, according to Cleaning the Glass, light-years ahead of what the league’s most potent units poured in during the regular season. A 31-foot bomb by Holiday gave Milwaukee a 60-59 lead with 1:27 to go in the first half; it would never trail again.

After Holiday paced the attack in the first half, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton stepped forward in the second, each scoring 20 points and dishing a pair of assists following intermission. As he did in Game 4, Middleton went bucket-for-bucket with Booker in the third quarter, preventing Phoenix from reducing its deficit despite shooting the lights out. As he has all series long, Antetokounmpo bull-rushed into, around, and through Ayton, pounded the offensive glass, and ran the floor hard in transition, constantly making Phoenix feel his wearying, worrying presence.

“I feel like we don’t stop,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve been a part of different teams. Usually when you’re down 15 or 16 or whatever, down 0-2 or whatever the case might be, you kind of like, stop. You kind of like—you kind of stop competing in a way. But I feel like this team, we don’t do that.”

Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points on 14-for-23 shooting, nine rebounds, and six assists without a turnover in 41 minutes; he’s dished 20 assists and committed just two turnovers in the past three games, tightening up his decision-making at precisely the right time for a Milwaukee offense that needs to win the possession battle.

Middleton added 29 on 12-for-23 shooting with seven boards and five dimes, and drilled a pair of obscenely tough step-back jumpers late to stem the tide as Phoenix made its big push:

And Holiday—the man Milwaukee moved heaven and earth to get, and who’s had his fair share of ups and downs throughout his first postseason as a Buck—stirred the drink, chipping in 27 points on 12-for-20 shooting with 13 assists, four rebounds, and three steals, none more vital than his burglary of Booker.

This was, more or less, the exact vision Milwaukee had when making the Holiday trade: that, after lacking enough offensive firepower in the highest-leverage moments of past seasons, this time around, it would now field three players capable of creating offense at a high level while still wreaking havoc defensively. And in the biggest game of their lives, all three of the Bucks’ stars shined as bright as ever. When you’re drawing comparisons like this, you must be doing something right:

Phoenix has been one of the league’s best teams all year, but it now finds itself with its back against the wall. After going up 2-0, the Suns have lost three straight games for just the second time this season, and the first time in nearly six months. They squandered a double-digit lead for the first time all postseason. And now, for the first time in these playoffs, they face elimination.

The Suns need a course correction that will allow them to regain control of a series that is now being played on the Bucks’ terms to such a degree that Phoenix lost Game 5 despite shooting 55 percent from the floor, 68 percent from 3-point range, and 91 percent from the foul line. That doesn’t seem possible, but it is, because all that accuracy came on vanishing volume: The Suns managed a season-low 19 3-point attempts (including just two from the corners) and only 11 free throws, relying instead on a steady diet of midrange jumpers from Booker and Paul to score.

Back in Game 1, Phoenix’s backcourt feasted on those pull-ups, prompting calls for the Bucks to totally overhaul their defensive strategy, lest they get run out of the playoffs on a rail. Budenholzer instead opted for tweaks rather than wholesale transformation, continuing to emphasize locking down the front of the rim and the short corners while daring the Suns to beat his team with contested 2-point jumpers. (Audacity takes many forms.) They haven’t been able to do it, and Milwaukee sits one win away from cashing its big bet, a wager of a half-decade’s worth of draft capital and more than $540 million in total salary: that adding Holiday to Giannis and Middleton would form a trio promising enough to lead the Bucks to the promised land.