From 15 wins to the ring: the Bucks, persistence and healing

After two stumbling seasons in the playoffs, Mike Budenholzer's project reaches the coveted glory. In 2014, the franchise was hitting rock bottom.


Can we believe the Bucks? A recurring question. The punishment on a franchise that, in recent years, had become a perfect machine in the regular season. Only there. In the playoffs, the story was very different and the tough mantra, deserved. Perhaps excessively, but with that part of reason that what is vox pópuli usually has. In 2019, they fell in the Conference Finals. It was against the Toronto Raptors, ultimately champions, after wasting a 2-0 in the series. In 2020, the spread, of greater proportions, occurred in the East semi-finals, against the giant killer of the tournament, a Heat that only the Los Angeles Lakers could stop in their feat. In both cases, after signing a practically pristine course, with 73.2% and 76.7%, respectively, of victories. So ... what was wrong? Many things. Like so many others, the Bucks had been caught in the trap of monotony, in a plan stubborn in their idea. Only one, who was left defenseless when the moment of truth arrived, when the blackboard becomes more important and the matches are thoroughly prepared, piece by piece. There, Mike Budenholzer and the team were shorting out. Not found 404 without warranty, support service, or replacement alternatives.

Lesson learned? Yes. Persistence lesson? Too. This year has been different in Wisconsin. The Bucks, in something that can be called a surprise, did not finish first in the regular season. They weren't far behind, but climbing those two extra positions didn't seem like their main goal either. In the course of the 82 games (72 this year), you have to win a lot, as it is essential to be present in the final phase; but you also have to try things. Simply. Consider different scenarios and face them. Game situations, tactics, quintets, etc. Everything that is possible and to the extent that it is possible, losing only those encounters that can be lost, but without discarding the scientific, laboratory part that the league allows. Otherwise, everything can collapse in a jiffy, in a simple zonal defense that was raised as an impenetrable wall for Giannis Antetokounmpo, the axis on which everything else revolves. And all.

Budenholzer has moved and, as a reward, beyond the glorious achievement, he will continue on the Bucks bench next season. Not excessively, but enough not to fall into the first mess of the road. His preference for statism somehow remains; but its persistence as well. And that of the whole team. The NBA is a long-distance race, a marathon in which being there can end up as a prize. And the Bucks have been. They have insisted on their project and, in the season of survival, they have survived. They may have been at the right time and place, but they have been. At the beginning of the playoffs, ahead, according to the forecasts, the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers awaited them: the worst possible route. The thorniest. One that, in the end, has not been so much; but that, then, nobody knew. Not themselves, who decided to walk when they had already accumulated various falls, injuries and even mockery. "It has been a long journey, but it has been a great journey. It has been worth it. After winning 15 games in our first year here, after seven years without reaching the playoffs, the last ones with the feeling of having the opportunity and not do enough ... and now you are here. This is what we have worked for, "declared Khris Middleton after the victory against the Atlanta Hawks, which opened the doors to the first final of the franchise in 47 years. Much feeling and a perfect summary of the recent history of the team, the one that leads to this day, until its second ring.Greece and G-League; Giannis and Khris

The series that the NBA champion has decided has a certain magical aspect. Some attempt to revolution, even. For the first time in 50 years, every player in the Finals arrived without a ring on their record. In them, Chris Paul or Giannis himself were present, also touring players like Jrue Holiday or Jae Crowder, who reissued their presence; but the map was as described. The last of them, in fact, was, before the start of the series, the only one with experience in a title eliminator. The situation, for more incentives, did not occur since 1971, the year the Bucks won the only championship in their history. Prophecy? In the case of the Suns, who were in their first finals in 28 years, the void extends to their record. Their rise to the Finals has been fast-paced, meteoric, never seen before: two years ago, with a 19-63 record, they were last in the West. In the case of the Bucks, the maturing process has been slower, but has reached its culmination earlier.

Middleton, one of the great heroes of the feat, came to the franchise in 2013. It was, at that time, a depressed team, aware of its ceiling and whose aspirations were being exhausted. Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings had led a project with the Conference Finals as the highest level and the feeling was that there was no room for more. Red button and rebuilding underway, but not without risk. Of all this, yes, there is still an important part of the culture: the "Bucks in 6", that song that, throughout the final phase, has returned in Wisconsin and that, 37 years later, has become to give twice (Eastern Finals and Finals). The mantra is part of the idiosyncrasy of the franchise. Ever since Brandon predicted, in a totally wrong way, that result for the series against Miami Heat in 2013, the Buck fans have adopted these three words as a sign of identity, as a shout with a certain memory edge, but also of hope.

The one Middleton and company have returned. The forward landed, with 22 years, as part of the exchange between Jennings himself and Brandon Knight. At Detroit Pistons, after being selected 39th in the second round of the Draft, he had only played 27 games, none as a starter. His actual activity, in fact, was in the G-League, in the development league. Things of destiny, of narrative, or of the simple whims of whoever, Antetokounmpo was drafted that same year in Milwaukee. With only experience in the Greek second division, and with the signing closed by Zaragoza, the franchise chose him in the 15th position. After that, the sporting director of the Maño team, Willy Villar, woke up with a heartfelt gratitude from the player himself: "At five in the morning I received a message from his agent on my mobile that said 'from Giannis, thank you for calling me in the world 'and I couldn't help but get excited, "he explains in statements collected by Gigantes magazine. Unknowingly, the Bucks were getting the cornerstones of their destiny. And, also without knowing it, Villar was fundamental in it. In this today.

It did not start with a promising pace, but it hit rock bottom to start aiming for the top. Sometimes it is necessary. In his first season, Giannis was down to a poor 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds; Middleton, by 12.1 + 3.8 + 2.1. Altogether, they harvested the worst record in franchise history: only the 15 victories mentioned by Khris were achieved after the sixth game against the Hawks. In the 2015-16 season, however, both were already above 18 points per game and in 2018-19, they shared All Star, although the Greek was already two ahead. Along the way, Larry Drew, Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty on the bench, with three appearances in the playoffs, all succumbing in the first round.New management and new house

A ring goes beyond the track and is the track itself. The complexity of glory, the price of Olympus. In 2017, the franchise, in all its dimensions, reinvented itself. Jon Horst, the current general manager, replaced John Hammond and the Fiserv Forum, the current pavilion, left the Bradley Center behind. A new aura, the place where, during this season, a culture that already existed, but which has been carried to its peak, has settled. The commercialization of animal skins, agriculture and livestock are in the first steps of a State, that of Wisconsin, which, despite its contemporary evolution, does not stop having a large part of its economic engine in heavy industry. A working heart, somewhat asleep, which has awakened with the wounds of previous courses. Without him, the comeback against the Brooklyn Nets or the Finals themselves would not have been possible, nor the pride that led to the uprising against the Hawks, in the absence of leader Giannis. Milwaukee, in its previous approaches to glory, was a neophyte, beardless aspirant; Milwaukee, and unlike Phoenix, was now a team used to falling. And it was time to get up. To such an extent that the 16 victories in the final phase ... surpass the famous 15 of 2013.

"It's a shit hole," said Joel Embiid in January 2017, after a Philadelphia 76ers game in Milwaukee. If the Bradley Center was one of the most antiquated pavilions in the NBA, the Fiserv Forum, on the other hand, as Kevin Arnovitz describes on ESPN, is a modern complex, with which not only a structure was built, but also a new web of programs to take advantage of new possibilities, with sports scientist Troy Flanagan at the helm. In the offices, Horst also began to blend in with the essence that was being generated. As Arnovitz himself recounts, when the manager entered management, he was not the first choice of any of the owners, it was the lack of agreement between them that drove his name. Thanking the opportunity, he accepted the first salary offer he had on the table, becoming the lowest paid executive in the competition. Now, the 20,000 Fiserv fans, and the more than 60,000 who have surrounded it, celebrate his decisions.

Holiday or how to overcome a barrier

It was Budenholzer's turn and that of the definitive changes, those that make up the nucleus of the current finalist squad. Brook López, dressed as Anteto in Game 5 against Atlanta, arrived as a free agent, as the coach, in 2018. On his resume, a lifetime in the Nets, where he is still the all-time leading scorer, and a brief stint in the Lakers. Ahead, the conversion to the player he is now, a magnificent rim protector with great capacity for outside shooting, but with the versatility to return to his roots, those that made him control the paint, be a reliable shooter near the rim and that, in these playoffs, have allowed him to be one of the differentiating factors. Connaughton, renewed this season and now sixth man, also signed from free agency and, in the Draft, he joined Donte Divincenzo, who was established as a starter this season, but absent from the final phase due to injury. Because the Bucks have not been oblivious to the misfortune of injuries, with Antetokounmpo's loss in the last two games of the Eastern Finals, but with the burden of losing a starter at the starting line.

The arsenal enough to reach, but not to break. Jeff Teague, opportune in the house where he was All Star, Bryn Forbes, explosive in the series against Miami, Bobby Portis, in "the best thing that happened to my career", PJ Tucker, as the icing, and Jrue Holiday, the differential factor, they arrived this same campaign. The last two, the paradigm of this season in Wisconsin: an all-in. For the arrival of the base, Eric Bledsoe, George Gill, RJ Hampton and three first of Draft left; for Tucker's, DJ Augustin, DJ Wilson and another first round said goodbye. Everything to the present and to this block. Before starting the season, Antetokounmpo signed the largest contract in history: 5 years and 228.2 million. With Middleton, the work was already done: it is tied until the year 2023 and has a player option in 2024, in maximum values. He signed in 2019 for 5 years and 178 million. And Jrue, who arrived with a guaranteed season and a player option, did not want to be allowed to escape: 134 million in four years and with a player option in the last. A maximum for a player who has only been an All Star once, but who, with only three months, has been amortized. If they exercise all the player options, the Bucks would invest in their three best players 105 million in the 2021-22 course, 113 million in 2022-23 and 120 in 2023-24, but ... what is the value of a ring?

"We are dogs", they define themselves. Players, mostly, who have never stepped on the most elegant catwalks, but who have been working in silence for some time. You can't understand these playoffs without the intensity of PJ and the character of Portis. And, above all, they cannot be understood without Holiday, a total player who, surely, has allowed survival in Anteto's absence, forming a dark, underdog big-three that has already made history. "Khris is the heart of this team. I feel like Giannis is the soul of this team, and without them, man, we really wouldn't be here," he declared after reaching the Finals. In this imaginary skeleton, he might as well be the brain, the missing mettle with Bledsoe. The franchise had not won a ring since the 1970-71 season, when Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in their final year as Lew Alcindor, managed to leave a mark that, until today, was unique. No one else had managed to repeat. Those who had come closest were themselves, under the baton of Larry Costello, three seasons later. Since then, some other attempts, such as the Conference Finals of Sidney Moncrief or Marques Johnson, a decade later, or those of Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, already in the 21st century. Half a century later, the baton is picked up. We can believe the Bucks.

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