It wasn’t the way or the how the road paved to the NBA Finals was taken, but the Milwaukee Bucks will make no apologies for finally getting there.
A long time coming for Giannis Antetokounmpo and this bunch, even if the two-time MVP was a spectator for the last two wins for the 2021 Eastern Conference champions.
The T-shirt and hat fit the same, and the heavy work he’s put in manifested itself in players he apparently empowered. While Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez took center stage at home, it needed to be Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday doing it on the road.
The co-stars, the Olympians-to-be — after the important business is finished.
Ironic, considering many felt the Bucks couldn’t get to the Finals with Giannis only to achieve the feat with him on the bench, nursing a hyperextended knee we can only hope doesn’t keep him out for the next two weeks.
It had to be bittersweet, but also rejuvenating, knowing teammates could rise to the challenge, take some hard punches and deliver the knockout with him being the biggest cheerleader.
Assuming he comes back, it’ll be a confident bunch that’s sure of themselves, just in need of their leader to nudge them across the finish line.
This team was built for him, the supplementary pieces, even coach Mike Budenholzer’s presence on the sidelines through continued scrutiny. It was a Rubik’s Cube the last couple of years for general manager Jon Horst, and the pressure wasn’t off the front office and ownership just because he re-upped for five more years — stars can demand out at any point in today’s game.
But even as Giannis is inactive, he’s invested.
“He's halfway on the court talking to Bobby, talking to Brook, talking to different players, to see that kind of connection, commitment, from a player who would be dying to be out there and playing,” Budenholzer said. “I think he appreciates, you know, what his teammates can do.”
It wasn’t Trae Young’s fault he stepped on a referee’s foot in Game 3, but it wasn’t the Bucks’ fault either. He returned Saturday but was rendered ineffective and out of rhythm in the 118-107 finale.
And once it was obvious his return wasn’t going to save the day, the air slowly drained from the Hawks, similar to the Clippers in their series finale against Phoenix. For Los Angeles, fatigue and missing transcendent player Kawhi Leonard hastened its demise.
For the Hawks, a storybook run was coming to a close, a glimpse of what the Eastern Conference could be in the near future if they take this surprising run and build from it.
But the urgency was on display at several points in this series, the near-desperation from the Bucks who realized this is their best chance at cementing themselves as champions.
They’ve had enough failures, they can’t afford another one, regardless of the circumstances.
“You know, certainly, anytime you lose, you got to be honest with yourself,” Budenholzer said. “You got to look, you got to reflect, and try and get better.”
As was the case in Game 3, Middleton saw a game for the taking in the third quarter. Two tired teams sparring around, doing too much feeling each other out for squads who’d been engaged in a slow dance for the last two weeks.
For years, Middleton’s offensive game had been developing in closed quarters — like trying to catch a mosquito in a phone booth. He operated on a string while Antetokounmpo needed the entire floor to stretch out and implement those gifts.
But like any good fighter, Middleton got space and opportunity in Game 6, dropping missiles that broke that game open and doubled as a warning to the waiting Suns: Don’t sleep on me, either.
It took two minutes and change to deliver 16 straight points and send the Hawks scrambling before their eventual comeback and final submission. He put up 23 in the quarter, an Andre Benjamin-like blitz that left Atlanta dazed and confused on what they saw and heard — a quiet arena for a bit.
“He’s one of our leaders, one of our core guys. To step up and take this challenge and rise to it, a lot of respect,” Budenholzer said. “I’m fortunate to be able to coach him.”
Holiday added, “Khris is the heart, and Giannis is the soul of this team.”
And Holiday is like many a great player in this talent-rich league who’ll get lost in the shuffle of hyper-focused attention on the select few but is a nightmare to compete against. After choosing Eric Bledsoe over Malcolm Brogdon then watching Bledsoe struggle in consecutive postseasons, Holiday and the Bucks needed each other equally. And if Chris Paul isn’t already, he’ll become acquainted with those long arms and relentless pressure, realizing he’s not Patrick Beverley.
Holiday is more of a defensive hound than a traditional floor general, but when he asserts himself, his impact can be just as pronounced as his counterpart. He shrugged at the notion of opening eyes around the league, but it’s undeniable the Bucks got the right man.
“I think accolades from my teammates, in the players around the league, they know what’s up,” he said. “They're in the trenches with me. If I get the respect from them, that’s all that really matters.”
Holiday again paced the Bucks early, and should he find the same aggression when and if Antetokounmpo returns, the Suns — six-point favorites at BetMGM in Game 1 on Tuesday — will have a tough fight on their hands.
It feels hard to believe in these Bucks, because they seem to play with fire long enough to have marks on their fingertips — but not enough to cause damage. They barely survived the Brooklyn Nets, taking two heavyweight shots from Kevin Durant, but all this means is they’re tested.
They may not put a team away when you want them to, but they’re not going down easy.
“That team was on a mission and has been on a mission for the last two years,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said.
That mission now goes to Phoenix.
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