The champion's 1x1: a 'Big Three' between dogs and gods

Milwaukee Bucks is NBA champion half a century later. With Giannis at the helm and a heart of iron, the franchise heals its previous downfalls.


50 years later, Milwaukee Bucks is NBA champion. A small market that, in recent years, had shown great aspirations. Always at the gates of glory, until today. In 1971, they were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson or Bob Dandridge; in 2021, already a historic year for the deer franchise, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton or Jrue Holiday. They are not random names. The last three have formed a Big Three that, until now, few dared to nickname as such. Stars that tend to hide behind the clouds, that do not fall quite well in the spotlight. "We are dogs", they kept repeating themselves. After the falls against the Toronto Raptors and Miami Geat, in the previous playoffs, they met the darker side of public opinion. This year, they have fought with hearts of iron, they have healed their wounds. No member of the squad had played a Finals before, they arrived unsuccessful and left with the ring between their fingers. They already know Olympus. After him, nothing is ever the same again. Even more, when the wait is half a century.

TRAINER: MIKE BUDENHOLZER, 51 years old. It was an all-in. If he didn't break his playoff ceiling, his time in Milwaukee was up. After beating the Brooklyn Nets, he stopped the hourglass; now, you have restarted it. Mike Budenholzer will be present in the next steps of the Bucks, he will continue to lead the team he taught to run. When he arrived in Wisconsin in 2018, he found a project that was just beginning. With Jason Kidd and, briefly, Joe Prunty accumulated two consecutive seasons of playoffs, but with a fall in the first round. With Budenholzer, he began to dominate the regular season with an iron fist, with 71.4% of victories in his three seasons (162-65), but a feeling of irremediable fragility was generated in the final phase. A single plan that, condemned by statism, was drowning in itself. On the third, lesson learned. In this postseason, answers have been found to almost every question. The 4-0 win over the Heat exemplifies the paradigm shift: from the impenetrable wall for Antetokounmpo, the result of a simple zone defense, he went to Jimmy Butler's nightmare. Brook Lopez going back to his roots, the constant defensive changes, the changes in the rotation, the ability to rectify Chris Paul's marking ... Other Bucks, another Budenholzer. "You have to figure it out on your own," Gregg Popovich told him before starting the finals, and he has. From ages 27 to 43, Mike was his assistant, with widely recognized contributions to the offensive system, with pace and space as the flag. Then, with the Atlanta Hawks, he showed his ability as a head coach, with the 2015 Conference Finals as the high point. At the Bucks, in an ode to redemption, he has confirmed it.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: power forward, 26 years old. Playoff statistics: 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.2 blocks. Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo ... and Antetokounmpo. The Greek player is already in Olympus, together with his gods. His condition as an earthly being has been completely destroyed, his miraculous recovery is the last proof that was needed. In Game 4 against the Hawks, his knee bent in such a way that, for anyone else, it would have been a goodbye to the season. Not for Giannis. He came back and signed a legendary Finals. His stopper on Deandre Ayton in the fourth game of the series will become one of the iconic images of the NBA, but also his alley-oop in the fifth, against a Chris Paul who could only push him. Or his sixth and decisive duel, with those 50 points that have brought 50 years of history to the present, one by one. Since Shaquille O'Neal, no one has dominated the inside game like him by now, not by feel or by numbers. He grew up in the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens, working as a street vendor, harassed, along with his family, by neo-Nazi groups and earning his daily bread. Spiros Velliniatis, scout for Filathlitikos, of the Greek Second Division, took him off the street and offered his parents a job. He saw something in him, like Willy Villar, who took him to Zaragoza, without making his debut, before landing in the NBA. His notes in the scout notebooks have become a player who, at 26 years old, accumulates 2 MVPs, 1 Finals MVP, 5 All Star, 1 Defender of the Year, 1 MIP ... and a ring, his coveted ring. When Pandora opened her box, filled with the evils that a vengeful Zeus had accumulated, terror took the world, but Elpis, the spirit of hope, remained. That has been Antetokounmpo for the Bucks: his harangues on the bench, his charisma, his constant drive, his work in silence, his cold mind in the face of criticism ("he's only physical, he doesn't know how to play basketball" ...), his improvement in decision making, etc. "The past is ego, the future is pride; I focus on the present," he reflected at a press conference. And the present is glory, Giannis.

KHRIS MIDDLETON: forward, 29 years old. Playoff statistics: 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals. He came to the Bucks at the same time as Antetokounmpo, in 2013, and after a lot of mud, they have reached the ring together. They were the first stones, and the most important, of the project that is crowned today. Of the 15 victories that the second Larry O'Brien of the franchise achieved in that first year: persistence and redemption, work and fundamentals. Because, like the Greek, his career has been marked by a bit of everything. In 2017, after the sixth game against the Toronto Raptors, the one who got him out of his second playoffs, ended up in the hospital dehydrated, exhausted after leaving his soul on the track. Today, the effort finds a happy ending. In history books, your contribution will take up pages and pages. The man that, in hot moments, everyone looks for. The closer, a vintage forward adapted to modern times, a lover of middle distance and a beast hungry for tension. A capital star, although it shines less than others. At the edge, as a tightrope walker on the finest wire, is where it is most dangerous. He appeared at critical moments against the Nets, with 35 points in the first win and 38 to make it 3-3; he left magic quarters against the Hawks, with his 20 goals in the last quarter of the third game or his 16 in the third of the sixth; and decided in the Finals, with his 10 points in the last two minutes of the fourth game. In 2012, he played the G League; in 2020, he sits on the throne of the best league in the world.

JRUE HOLIDAY: guard, 31 years old. Playoff statistics: 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.7 steals. The last member of the Big Three, in order of arrival. For his incorporation, three draft picks left, George Hill, Eric Bledsoe and RJ Hampton. A very high price, but ... maybe the one for the ring? Holiday landed in Milwaukee with a clear mission: to break the glass ceiling. It was a whole at present and the bank has lost. The Finals, without him on the track, would have been totally different. Like the Miwaukee season in general. In the first game of the series, defended by PJ. Tucker, Chris Paul finished with 32 points and 9 assists: a mirage for the Suns. And it was mainly because of the change of assignment between Tucker and Jrue, martyrdom of Phoenix and Paul in particular. "He's the best defender in the league at point guard," Kevin Durant went on to say about him. "He's the most underrated in the league," Stephen Curry or Bradley Beal. He has shown why and, in addition, he has added offensive nights to remember, such as the fifth game of the Finals, with the robbery of Devin Booker and the alley oop included. That alley oop. Within the league, he is one of the most respected players in the competition; now, surely, it will also be outside. As it deserves. In 2016, he left basketball to be with his wife, Lauren Cheney, an American soccer star, who was undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. In the Orlando bubble, he donated his entire salary to strengthen the African American community and the Black Lives Matter movement. He already had many rings; now, also that of the NBA.

BROOK LÓPEZ: center, 33 years old. Playoff statistics: 13 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. The top scorer in Nets history. Let it go ahead, because it is usually forgotten. Surely, one of the main images of the evolution of modern centers. In his first five seasons in the competition, he made seven triples; now, he averages four pitches with a 33.8% success rate. He came to Milwaukee in 2018, and since then it's hard to imagine the franchise without him, both for his performance and his character. "I love being your teammate, you never complain. You do a lot for this team and you don't ask for any recognition," Jrue wrote to the center this season. One more warrior, but with the ability to dress in a suit, to be decisive in the absence of the main stars. In this postseason, he will be remembered for his fifth game against the Hawks, when, with 33 points, he disguised himself as Anteto in his absence; but his contribution has been constant and essential. In the Finals, his role has diminished, being the favorite target in the defensive changes, but he has more than fulfilled his minutes on the court. As Holiday admired, for him, it is not a problem to adapt to what the situations demand, with his return to the origins, to the inside game, in the series against the Heat. He lives by and for the team and, now, the latter has awarded him his first ring.

P.J. TUCKER: power forward, 36 years old. Playoff statistics: 4.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists. Again, a sign that the Bucks were blindly confident in their chances for this year. In March, PJ Tucker arrived in exchange for DJ Augustin, DJ Wilson and a first round of Draft2023. Also, by the way, at that time, Torrey Craig was leaving for Phoenix Suns. In some way, all of them, participants of the ring. With the veteran player, in Wisconsin, they wanted to increase his defensive performance, but also the knowledge on the court, the battles of a soldier who has been in the toughest trenches. After playing 17 games, as a rookie, in Toronto, he packed his bags to get tanned in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany. He returned to the NBA just to play for the Suns and, to the Bucks, he came from Houston. In these playoffs, he has left his life, as he has remarked on more than one occasion. His defense over Kevin Durant, insistent and tough as well as noble, his innumerable aids, recoveries ... He has not finished the final phase with great records in the main statistics, but yes, night after night, with one of the best + /- track. That's what it came for.

PAT CONNAUGHTON: forward, 28 years old. Playoff statistics: 6.9 points and 4.4 rebounds. He renewed before starting the season for 2 years and 8.3 million, charging, for bureaucratic errors, practically double what the franchise wanted to give him. Finally, the investment, as in all previous cases, has been more than amortized. A secondary of luxury, of the absolute confidence of Budenholzer, with transcendental contributions. He has participated in all the games of the final phase and has been decisive, infallible from the perimeter when the wrists usually tremble the most. It was providential in the fourth and in the fifth game of the Finals, with 4 triples in both with a 53.8% accuracy. To even the tie, he scored 8 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in the last 12 minutes, scoring the triple that led the Bucks (97-95) with 3 minutes to go. His performance has multiplied the possibilities in the short rotation of the coach, being vital in the small quintets, those of greater efficiency. And, all of this, of course, with tons of work and intensity.

BOBBY PORTIS: center, 26 years old. Playoff statistics: 8.8 points and 5 rebounds. If the Bucks repeated themselves, over and over again, that they were "dogs", it was because of a choral sentiment, but largely because of Portis. The pivot has been reunited in Milwaukee. He has found his site: "It is a blue-collar city and I am a blue-collar player", he has described himself. After a career marked by controversy, especially due to his incident with Nikola Mirotic, he has discovered a way to channel his anger, his energy, his endless claw. His screams after winning each ball in dispute have been fused with the 20,000 souls of the Fiserv Forum, who chant his name whenever they can. Even with T-shirts with the silkscreened chant: "Bobby, bobby, bobby." It has spread a rebellious culture, it is part of the iron that has fortified the heart of the franchise. And while he did, he performed on the track, even becoming the chosen one for the starting position during Giannis's discharge. He has a player option on the table, but whatever happens, Portis and Milwaukee will be united forever.

DONTE DIVINCENZO: bodyguard, 24 years old. Statistics in regular season: 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Neither Doncic nor Deandre Ayton nor Trae Young, DiVincenzo has been the first member of the majestic litter to get a ring. In his first season as a starter in the best league in the world, a serious tendon injury in his left foot has prevented him from participating in the final phase. At times, the Bucks have missed him, like in the defensive changes in the first game of the Finals, but they have remade themselves. He started the season with both feet outside the franchise, being part of the transfer that, for hours, placed Bogdan Bogdanovic in Wisconsin, but, after an exciting season, his ceiling has increased. After watching him play in college, LeBron James surrendered to his abilities. He was the MVP of said final phase and, after the game, the king assured that "he has just won a lot of money." Time will tell, but next season, it will continue to grow. Now on a champion team.

BRYN FORBES: base, 27 years old. Playoff statistics: 6.6 points and 1.4 rebounds. His weaknesses in the rear have been taking away prominence with the increase in fire, traps and blows. He is not a player for this, but he is for what he has done: shoot at will when necessary. His 7 of 14 in the final game of the series against the Heat was the culmination of a very solid season in his role. With the goodbye of a legend in the discipline like Kyle Korver, the Bucks needed a specialist from long distance, and he has been: in the regular season, he has signed his best record, with a 45.2% accuracy.

JEFF TEAGUE: guard, 33 years old. Playoff statistics: 2 points and 0.8 assists. His contribution has been irregular, but Budenholzer has relied on him for the Finals, being his games with the most presence on the court during the playoffs. They knew each other from Atlanta, where Teague was All Star and where he left his mark on the present ring, with an immaculate 3 of 3 on the triple in the sixth and final duel. His deployment on the track is far from what he offered at his best, explosive and pungent like few others, but he has added. And, when it comes to winning the NBA, all help is little. A soldier more willing to do anything.

ELIJAH BRYANT: escort, 26 years old. Playoff statistics: 1.3 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.4 assists. He landed in Wisconsin at the last minute, in full European landing in the NBA, from Maccabi in Tel Aviv. In Euroleague, he had averaged 9.8 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. He has stayed away in the United States, with a testimonial contribution, but showing that he can have a journey in the league. In his first, and last, regular season game he signed a 16 + 6 + 3; In the playoffs, without being part of the rotation, he has been able to do his bit.

THANASIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: forward, 28 years old. Statistics in regular season: 2.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 0.8 assists. In the parquet, his contribution has been negligible; but, from the band, few voices have been heard more than his. Like his brother, he grew up on the streets of Greece and now boasts the most glamorous ring out there. In the fifth game of the Finals, he sowed fear in Wisconsin with his entry into the protocols related to Covid. Finally, he was in shock ... and in the third NBA championship for the family, added to that of Kostas with the Los Angeles Lakers.

JORDAN NWORA: forward, 22 years old. Statistics in regular season: 5.7 points, 2 rebounds and 0.2 assists. He was selected in position 45 of the last Draft and will participate in the Tokyo Olympics with the promising Nigeria. In it, he holds the record for scoring in a game: 36 points against Mali in 2019. He has participated in 30 games in the regular season, with fleeting appearances in the playoffs. In his only two games as a starter, he added 21 and 24 points. It combines good physical conditions with a lot of danger from the perimeter. It will continue to grow in Wisconsin.

SAM MERRILL: escort, 25 years old. Statistics in regular season: 3 points, 1 rebound and 0.7 assists. The last of the last litter, number 60. He arrived with Holiday from New Orleans. His qualities were unmistakable: a pure marksman. In his university career, he accumulated 6.9 triples for every 40 minutes, with a 42% success rate. In his first season as a professional, in 30 games, he has launched 1.6 attempts with a 44.7% success rate. He can make a career out of his role, but he must polish up his defensive skills.

MAMADI DIAKITE: power forward, 24 years old. Statistics in regular season: 3.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 assists. Another rookie, the one with the least participation. His 10 points in a loss to Charlotte Hornets have been his best performance in his freshman season in the NBA. It stands out for its size and good ball handling despite its height. Also for a more than acceptable shot. However, he must try to show all his qualities in his second season in the best league in the world. He has it insured, after the franchise offered him a permanent contract in April.

AXEL TOUPANE: escort, 28 years old. Statistics in regular season: 1.8 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.5 assists. Testimonial campaign, with only eight matches on its counter. He has been searching for his place in the NBA since, in 2015, he made his debut with the Denver Nuggets. It was his second experience with the Bucks, after the two games in 2016. It has not been much more prolific, but he has had the opportunity to know the glory.

JUSTIN JACKSON: forward, 26 years old. Playoff statistics: 1.2 points, 0.4 rebounds and 0.2 assists. He came to Milwaukee, from Oklahoma, on a dual contract. He only added one presence in the regular season, in the last game, and, in the playoffs, he has appeared in the games decided. It was his fourth season in the competition. Before the Thunder, there were the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings.

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