It’s been a week and it’s still a little hard to comprehend.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the NBA champions.
As has been pointed out many times, it was the team’s first NBA title in 50 years. The last time the Bucks won pro basketball’s highest honor, Richard Nixon was U.S. president; a gallon of gas cost 36 cents; and the Brewers were in the American League while the Montreal Expos were in their third season in the National League.
The Bucks’ second championship, clinched with a Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns, was won in front of a roaring crowd at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, the first time a Milwaukee pro or college team had won a major national championship in front of the home fans.
The championship is all the more remarkable considering how close the Bucks twice came to being eliminated from the NBA playoffs.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, they were the length of the toe of a basketball shoe from being eliminated. Had Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant’s foot not been on the 3-point line when he made his shot near the end of regulation in Game 7—turning his made basket into a 2-pointer—that game would have been over and the Bucks would have had no chance to win the game and series in overtime.
Then there was the moment in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, when Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo collapsed in pain under the basket and had to be helped off. As good as the Bucks are, we had to think, how could they win the series against the Atlanta Hawks without their two-time league MVP? And yet they did, winning the final two games to take the series and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
Then, despite Antetokoumpo’s return, the Bucks went down two games to none to the Suns, and we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that the next two games would be in Milwaukee.
The Bucks aren’t a one-man team—Khris Middleton is on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo; fellow Olympian Jrue Holliday, acquired by the Bucks this season, demonstrated why he’s regarded as one of the best defensive point guards, if not the best, in the league; and Brook Lopez, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton all excel at the “hustle plays” in basketball that aren’t flashy but are necessary to win big games.
But the Bucks do have a superstar, the 6-foot-11 guy from Greece. Giannis Antetokounmpo does things on a basketball court that other players have done, but his full set of skills—the combination of things he does on a court—might be without equal in the history of basketball.
Those skills were on full display in the NBA Finals.
We’re still not sure how he cut across the lane to block Deandre Ayton’s shot at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
Then there was his court-length sprint after Holiday’s late steal of the ball from the Suns’ Devin Booker in Game 5. Granted, Holiday had pulled up to burn a few more seconds off the clock, but when he saw Giannis streaking down the middle of the court, Holiday knew an alley-oop pass to set up a spectacular dunk was the way to cap off the first win by a visiting team in the Finals.
Then came last Tuesday night, and Game 6.
In a performance that will be talked about by Wisconsin sports fans for years to come, Antetokounmpo scored 50 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots.
Even his free throws—the one glaring weakness in his game, and the source of taunting by the fans in visiting areas when he went to the line—were going in during Game 6. He was 17 of 19 from the line in the biggest game of his life.
In the two other biggest Wisconsin pro sports moments of recent memory—the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl wins in January 1997 and February 2011—the Packers’ superstar quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers respectively, played brilliantly. While it’s difficult to compare sports, it’s arguable that Antetokounmpo’s performance in his “for all the marbles” game was even better than those of Favre and Rodgers in their Super Bowl wins.
Then there’s the way the Bucks brought us together—hundreds of us in Deer District Racine, tens of thousands of us in the original Deer District in Milwaukee. From the first playoff game on May 22 to the final game on July 20, an ever-increasing number of Wisconsinites set aside our differences and rooted for the guys in green and white (and occasionally in black).
Thanks, Bucks. That was fun. Let’s do it again next year.