The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA Champions.
“CHAMPIONS”, the headline read atop the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wednesday morning, July 21, 2021. As surreal as it sounds, that’s what the Milwaukee Bucks are. They are at the top of the world, crowned as champions with a 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns. With a 50 point masterpiece of a game by superstar and now Milwaukee legend Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks broke the city’s 50 year championship drought. With 18,000 in Fiserv Forum, and 65,000 surrounding the arena in the Deer District, the Bucks were able to do the unthinkable. In the sweetest of ways, Milwaukee is a city of champions.
And suddenly it all makes sense. You follow your team through the thick and the thin. You suffer through 15 win seasons. You see your team become a laughingstock of the league. Regardless, you buy jerseys and invest in the future. You continue to spend money on tickets, regardless of how competitive the team is. And once you do get through it all, and make some postseason appearances, heartbreak becomes the norm. Game 7 against Boston three years ago. The crushing Toronto series in 2019. Finally, the devastating 5 game exit in last year’s semifinals against Miami. But, if you stuck through it all, you get to reap the reward. Suddenly, these Bucks are NBA Champions. There was a light at the end of the tunnel after all, and how sweet it is.
How sweet it is that the narrative created by the national media that Giannis doesn’t, and won’t ever have what it takes to win a championship as the only superstar can finally be put to sleep. How sweet it is that the Khris Middleton criticizers can finally shut their mouths, as he has done nothing but prove that he can be a reliable number 2 option. How sweet it is, that after being called a “terrible city” by the host of the most popular sports debate show in the nation, Milwaukee showed out to these Finals in unimaginable ways. I mean 80,000 people showing up to watch a team win a championship is absolutely crazy, but that’s what happened Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
The scene inside and outside of Fiserv Forum was absolutely unbelievable. The 65,000 people jam-packed in the newly formed Deer District is something that only the Bucks claim. No other franchise even stands a chance of replicating it. If someone would’ve told you seven years ago, that the Bucks would be in the NBA Finals, and that the entire arena would be completely surrounded by a sea of fans, you would’ve gotten drug tested. That’s how grim things looked for the franchise back in 2014, when Herb Kohl sold the team on the condition that the new ownership group had to promise not to move the organization. Coming off an abysmal 15 win season, there were legitimate worries of the city losing their NBA team. But because of years of dedication to get to this point, that worry will surely never be real again. The story of this team and their relationship with their fans is hard to put into words. But at the end of the day, Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered on his promise to bring a championship to the city that longed for one so bad.
After multiple playoff heartbreaks that gave many the idea that Giannis doesn’t have what it takes to become a champion, he finally ended that narrative. Losing in 2019 was one thing. It was the team’s first deep run into the postseason, and there was plenty of optimism for the future. But falling to the Heat in the second round was another. In consecutive seasons, the Bucks had claimed the #1 seed, only to disappoint in the postseason, this time not even advancing past the second round. Changes had to be made. And they were.
Point guard Jrue Holiday was acquired in the offseason in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and a slew of draft picks. Once the Bucks traded for Holiday, you knew they were all in, and sick of losing in the postseason. With three proven players, the pressure was on. He proved to be the key acquisition. Holiday’s defense and offensive explosiveness were evident from his beginning with Milwaukee. Even after just a few weeks in a Bucks uniform, it was obvious that Holiday brought so much more to the table than his predecessor, Bledsoe. In the postseason, that was even more apparent. Holiday’s ability to be a third option on a team just wasn’t there in 2019 and 2020 for this Bucks team. And while he had his share of postseason struggles, every knowledgeable Bucks fan knows that the team wouldn’t be in the position they are now without him. After playing poorly in the first two games of the Finals, Holiday found his niche in Game 3, by establishing a presence on defense. He started pestering Phoenix point guard Chris Paul to the max, picking him up all the way down the court. His size and quickness, paired along with his strong hands had a huge factor in limiting Paul, as well as the entire team offensively. Each championship team was once a piece away, and because of Holiday, the Bucks got their “piece.”
I’m not sure where this column is going, but all that matters is that the Bucks brought home a championship. I can think of four different times this postseason, where I almost gave up hope that this team would go all the way. After dropping the first two games of the Brooklyn series in ugly fashion, it looked like the series would be a wrap. But after winning Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee, hope was regained. However, after an absolutely gut-wrenching Game 5 loss, it looked like the Bucks just didn’t have what it took to be a championship level team. But they stormed right back and beat Kevin Durant and the Nets in the final two games of the series. The third time I had my doubts occurred when Giannis went down in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which looked like a devastating injury. I thought we could finish off Atlanta, but had serious doubts about winning the Finals without Giannis. But in a completely 180 degree turn of events, Giannis was back playing in Game 1 of the Finals. Sure enough, Milwaukee went down 2-0. Looking meek and timid, it looked like Phoenix had their number. But obviously, they didn’t.
The Milwaukee Bucks are champs. And nobody will ever be able to take it away.