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The Bucks Have Their Savior, and Their First NBA Championship in 50 Years

Giannis Antetokounmpo put on the performance of a lifetime on Tuesday to propel Milwaukee past the Suns in the NBA Finals. And his journey—as well as the franchise’s as a whole—illustrates all the what-ifs that go into winning a championship.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When it mattered most, with the championship on the line and his legacy in the making, Giannis Antetokounmpo did the improbable.

He didn’t just score 50 points and grab 14 rebounds and block five shots. And he didn’t just play 42 indefatigable minutes while shouldering the dreams of 85,000 screaming fans in and around Fiserv Forum. No: Giannis even made his free throws.

The one glaring blemish in the two-time MVP’s game is his free throw shooting: He had a 69 percent mark from the charity stripe in this regular season and a 56 percent figure in the playoffs coming into Game 6 of the Finals. Then on Tuesday night, he sank 17 of 19 attempts—each one crucial in a close contest—and surmounted the final obstacle holding him back from transcendence.

“People told me I can’t make free throws,” Giannis said. “I made my free throws tonight! And I’m a freaking champion.”

With all those free throws in tow, and all those Giannis buckets and boards and blocks in the stat sheet, Milwaukee couldn’t lose. The Bucks earned a 105-98 win, their fourth in a row after falling down 2-0 to start the Finals, and won an NBA championship for the first time since 1971. Milwaukee is already celebrating. It’s unclear when the city will stop.

The story of Game 6, the broader comeback, and the Bucks, really, all leads back to Giannis, who at just 26 years old has already written himself into NBA legend. He set the tone early on Tuesday, swatting a Mikal Bridges layup on the Suns’ second possession of the game and beating Deandre Ayton for a bank shot on the other end. Then he sank his first two free throws, a propitious omen of the night to come—the first rolling around the entire circumference of the rim before falling and eliciting a raucous cheer from the crowd.

But after the Bucks built a 13-point advantage through one quarter, the offense, as it has so often in the team’s recent playoff runs, stalled. The Suns outscored Milwaukee 31-13 in the second quarter, taking a five-point lead into halftime. Giannis had 17 points at the break. But he was just getting started.

The Bucks’ star more than doubled that total in the third quarter alone, scoring 20 points from all over the floor. Giannis hit an and-1 and lined up a rare successful 3-pointer. He sank a midrange jumper and two free throws, then grabbed his own miss and finished at the rim. Later, he swished another jumper, fading away over Jae Crowder, and contributed a kickout for a Jrue Holiday corner 3 as the shot clock expired.

Then in the fourth, with Phoenix still hanging around, Giannis lowered his head and drove to the rim, daring the Suns to send him to the line even though he has so often faltered there before. But not this night. Milwaukee scored 63 points in the second half—and more than half, 33, belonged to Giannis.

The Bucks’ search for a superstar who could lead them to the title was a long, arduous process. The team’s last top-10 pick was Thon Maker, an unfortunate reach at no. 10 in 2016. Before that, they whiffed on Jabari Parker at no. 2, Joe Alexander at no. 8, and Yi Jianlian at no. 6. They selected Andrew Bogut first in 2005, ahead of Chris Paul, and between 2001 and 2019, as a generation of fans was born and raised to adulthood, the Bucks failed to win a single playoff series.

But all it takes is one smash hit to compensate for all the misses, and with the 15th pick in 2013, sandwiched between Shabazz Muhammad and Lucas Nogueira, the Bucks selected a 6-foot-9, 196-pound Greek teenager who would go on to change the franchise.

Giannis was the “youngest player in the draft, and the most mysterious,” Fran Fraschilla said on the 2013 draft broadcast. “Can you put him in an NBA game right now? You probably cannot. But in the long-term picture, this kid has as much upside as most anybody in this draft … a young man that I think is going to get better and better.”

And so he has. Giannis’s points-per-game averaged increased in each of the first seven seasons of his career. Even after reaching the All-NBA level by age 22, Giannis has continued to improve and earn new hardware: In 2019, he won the MVP award for the first time; in 2020, he won both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards; and in 2021, he won a championship and a unanimous Finals MVP Award.

The rise of Giannis’s sidekick was no less surprising: Khris Middleton is a former second-round pick who was sent to Milwaukee as an overlooked throw-in to the Brandon Jennings–Brandon Knight swap in the summer of 2013. How overlooked was Middleton at the time? In ESPN’s analysis of the deal, his name doesn’t appear past the first sentence that lists the full trade; in Grantland’s write-up, his name doesn’t appear at all.

Yet Middleton was the Bucks’ go-to creator in the clutch, their second-leading scorer in the playoffs, and he was no less important to the team’s narrow path to the title. He scored Milwaukee’s most crucial buckets all postseason long, from an overtime buzzer-beater against the Heat in the first game of the playoffs, all the way through the last minute of the Finals, when his fadeaway midrange jumper hammered the final nail in the Suns’ coffin.

“We did it, huh?” Giannis asked a trophy-wielding Middleton postgame. “We fucking did it.”

To get to this point, the Bucks had to overcome not just their meager origins, but their more recent failures. After posting the league’s best record in 2019, they blew a 2-0 lead against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals; after posting the league’s best record again in 2020, they bowed out early in a dispiriting bubble loss to the Heat.

Yet even as they collapsed, Bucks players say they learned from their conquerors. “I remember in the [2019] Eastern Conference finals, we were up 2-0 and lost four straight. I’m trying to think, ‘What was the mindset of the other team?’” Giannis said before Game 6. So then, in these playoffs, “When we were down 2-0—they did it, why [can’t we] do it?”

The Bucks did it—and not just once. In the second round against Brooklyn, they lost the series’ first two games, trailed in the final minute of Game 3, choked away a lead in Game 5, and trailed in the final minutes of both regulation and overtime on the road in Game 7. They won anyway.

In the conference finals, they lost Game 1 to Atlanta, then lost Giannis to a knee injury with the series even at two games apiece. They won anyway.

And in the Finals, they lost the first two games in Phoenix, then fell behind by 16 points after the first quarter of Game 5, then trailed for one final hurrah at halftime of Game 6. They won anyway, and clinched the closeout at home.

This title journey didn’t come easy; there were plenty of off-ramps the Bucks could have taken along the way. Rather, this triumph underscores all the small margins that add up to any NBA championship.

If they hadn’t learned how to master the comeback from their past playoff failures, the Bucks wouldn’t have won the title. If Giannis’s knee had bent farther in the conference finals, sidelining him for more than just two games, the Bucks wouldn’t have won the title. If Kevin Durant’s oversized sneaker had inched behind the 3-point line instead of resting atop it before his last-second shot in Game 7 of the second round, the Bucks wouldn’t have won the title.

The what-ifs go back even further in time: If they hadn’t gambled with trades of up to five picks for Holiday; if they hadn’t added strategic stalwarts Mike Budenholzer and Brook Lopez as the team prepared to take a step forward in the summer of 2018; if they hadn’t acquired Middleton in a theft nobody noticed at the time, the Bucks wouldn’t have won the title.

Most of all, if a club coach hadn’t spotted a 13-year-old playing soccer in Athens and convinced him to try a different sport; if that 13-year-old hadn’t matured into one of the best basketball players the world has ever seen, with an unprecedented combination of size and power, smarts and speed; and if that world-historical basketball player hadn’t scored 50 points and made 89.5 percent of his free throws in the finale, the Bucks wouldn’t have won the title.

But all of those intermediate steps occurred as needed, the Bucks won for the first time in 50 years, and a city and franchise long in wait can let loose in celebration.

“This is time to party,” Giannis laughed after the game, holding the Larry O’Brien trophy in one hand and the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy in the other. “No, I’m joking.” The city doesn’t think so.