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It Took a Village to Get the Bucks to the Finals

With Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined, Milwaukee outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted Atlanta to survive the Eastern Conference finals and advance for a long-awaited shot at a title

2021 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Miami Heat five weeks ago and put the first of their playoff ghosts to rest, Giannis Antetokounmpo—a back-to-back MVP so deferential to the process that he once insisted he didn’t actually want to be called the MVP until he won a championship—allowed himself a moment of unusual brashness. “There’s a saying: don’t play with your food,” Antetokounmpo said in his walk-off interview after clinching that series. “We didn’t want to play with our food.” It was bluster delivered as a matter of fact.

What better tribute to Antetokounmpo than the notion that even when he was sidelined for the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals with a hyperextended knee, his teammates kept eating, devouring the moment. On Saturday they took their last bite with a 118-107 win over the Hawks that clinched Milwaukee’s first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1974. It was as decisive a performance as we’ve seen from this iteration of the Bucks—the work of a superior team that had seen enough. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined for 59 points in the closeout effort after totaling 51 between them in the win prior. Atlanta’s efforts to steadily grind down Milwaukee’s lead were blown apart by Middleton’s 23-point third quarter; at one point, Middleton went on his own 13-0 run in the span of just two minutes.

“The way that he plays, man, him scoring 20 points multiple quarters of multiple games, is something that I can tell my kids that I witnessed,” Holiday said after the game. “When I go back and watch the film, I can tell them that I was out there fighting with him. Khris is the heart of this team, and I feel like Giannis is the soul of this team. Without them, we really wouldn’t be here.”

The same, of course, is true of Holiday and so many other Bucks. The mythology of the NBA championship is told through superstars, but for a team to even reach the Finals requires a perfect confluence of timely contributions. The difference between breaking through to the championship round and sulking home in defeat is a dominant Game 5 from Brook Lopez. It’s digging deep into the bench and turning up 11 points in 12 minutes from Jeff Teague in Game 6. It’s the luxury of trusting in Pat Connaughton whenever Mike Budenholzer wants to go small. It’s a jolt of adrenaline from Bobby Portis digging out a vital offensive rebound, and the lift of a hundred dogged contests from P.J. Tucker.

Every role player in Milwaukee’s rotation has found their time to shine. And because of that, a Bucks team that felt stale and predictable in recent postseasons has managed to gain steam in each of its matchups so far. Before Antetokounmpo’s knee injury, the Bucks had lost their playoff minutes without him. It showed on the night he left the lineup—a night in which Milwaukee was forced to attempt a desperate comeback without one of the very best players in the sport. At minimum, that version of the Bucks appeared out of sorts and misaligned, as if they had lost touch with everything that made them a contender in the first place. Then they emerged for Games 5 and 6 in their full gestalt glory, accounting for the absence of Giannis with crackling connectivity.

The best means the Bucks had to replace the 28.2 points per game Antetokounmpo has averaged in these playoffs was to hone the attacks of Middleton and Holiday as much as they could, and make up for the rest by turning stops and hustle into backdoor offense. The Hawks, after all, were dealing with an injury of their own: postseason standout Trae Young, who was first sidelined and then limited by a bone bruise in his right foot. Without the full shimmy and shake of Young’s pick-and-roll game, Atlanta struggled to find openings through a stifling line of perimeter defense and then around all the length—starting with Lopez—that would meet them at the rim. The intensity of that coverage, even more than all that Giannis brings, is the through line of Milwaukee’s entire playoff run. It’s what makes the Bucks.

In the 2020 bubble playoffs, the Heat made a mockery of the Bucks’ stubborn commitment to their base defense, flooding the court with enough movement and shooting to invalidate their principles. So Milwaukee adapted—not only to the point it would quickly dismiss Miami in a rematch this season, but then go on to contain and beat some of the best-spaced and best-shooting teams in the league. This was a record-shattering year for NBA offense overall; after the Mavericks set the all-time record for points scored per possession last season, seven of this year’s playoff teams managed to eclipse it. (Milwaukee was one of them, and Phoenix, its next opponent, was another.) The balance of the entire sport is shifting, and yet the Bucks have pulled off a franchise-defining playoff run by improbably stemming the tide. They are the top playoff defense by far in a league dominated by hyper-efficient scoring, headlined by the best defensive lineup in the entire postseason field (or effectively tied for that distinction with the smaller-batch offerings of the Hawks’ own fully healthy starters).

Winning in this particular way is affirming to the entire organizational project. The Bucks didn’t just build a team that Antetokounmpo could dead-lift to the Finals, but one that could take the pressure off him in crunch time, handle some of the most taxing defensive assignments, and ultimately survive in the event of his absence. It was only half a year ago that rival teams were monitoring Giannis’s every quote and gesture for some tell he might leave for a bigger market to join up with other superstars. Now it’s the Bucks—after revamping their strategy and overhauling their roster—that have carried Giannis through for his first proper shot at a title.

Milwaukee lost its former Defensive Player of the Year from the lineup and simply carried on, thwarting ball screens and flying through rotations with championship precision. That in itself is a journey; there’s a multi-year saga in every defensive switch the Bucks make, the story of a team that had to find its own winding way to adaptability. Maybe it all should have happened sooner for Milwaukee, but this wouldn’t be the same team without its baggage. The fight the Bucks showed Saturday was the fight of a group that knows what it means to lose—one that knows all too well what it can cost a contender to play with its food.