MILWAUKEE – A championship is born in different places, in different ways.
Before today, an NBA title was never born in Greece to Nigerian parents who had a son named Giannis Antetokounmpo who started playing basketball when he was 13 years old on ramshackle outdoor playground courts in Athens.
Thirteen years later – and eight years after the Milwaukee Bucks hit the jackpot by selecting the talented but raw Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick in the 2013 draft – Antetokounmpo is an NBA champion and Finals MVP.
It’s difficult to invent a more inspiring success story – a family whose children had to sell knickknacks on Athens streets to help put food on the table and pay bills.
And now? Standing at center court, first holding the Larry O’Brien championship trophy and then the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum late Tuesday night.
“I started playing basketball just to help my family,” Antetokounmpo said. “Tried to get them out of the struggle, the challenges we were facing when we were kids. But I never thought I’m going to be 26 years old, with my team playing the NBA Finals.”
The Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, ending a compelling series in which Milwaukee became just the fifth team in 36 tries to come back from a 2-0 Finals deficit and win the championship.
“We just felt like we played better in Game 2,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Game 1, we were not very good. You have to look at yourself. You have to be honest. We went into Game 2 and we still felt like we were able to get over the hump and we were getting better and learned some things defensively. This group loves to take the challenge. They watched the film and got better, and from 2 to 3 we got better and 3 to 4 and through tonight. It’s been great to watch and witness what this team does when they are challenged.”
It is Milwaukee’s first championship since 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson starred.
Chapter 1: Antetokounmpo the unicorn
Antetokounmpo engraved his name in Bucks history with an astonishing Finals experience. He averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, five assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals and shot 61.8% from the field.
He had The Block on Deandre Ayton in Game 4, The Dunk over Chris Paul in Game 5 and The Fifty Piece in Game 6. Antetokounmpo scored 50 points in the series-clinching game in addition to 14 rebounds and five blocks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo became the first player to record at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in an NBA Finals game since blocks were tracked starting in 1973-74.
It was amazing Antetokounmpo throughout the series. He used his unicorn-like mix of size, strength, speed and skill to create advantages for himself and his teammates.
He dominated at or near the rim. Against the Suns, he scored 134 of his 211 points against Phoenix in the paint, finding his way through, around and over Phoenix’s Giannis Wall.
When then-Bucks general manager John Hammond drafted Antetokounmpo, his wildest dreams didn’t see this coming. No one thinks they’re getting a generational player at No. 15. But with player development and Antetokounmpo’s hard work and skill, he became an All-Star and All-NBA performer for the first time in 2017. It was apparent the Bucks could build around Antetokounmpo and compete for a championship. By the time he won first MVP in 2019, the Bucks had real championship aspirations.
“It’s been a long journey,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve done it all, man. I did anything that I could just to be on the court, just to be in this position. I’ve not played. I’ve come off the bench. When I was 18, I started on the team. I went to the front office and told them to send me to the G League. I’ve played point guard. I’ve only defended. Slashed from the corners and everything. In my fourth year, I was able to lead as a ball handler.
“I’ve done it all. Tonight, that’s what I had to do. I had to do a little bit of everything. I had to defend, I had to rebound, I had to block. Did a little bit of everything.”
Chapter 2: Hard lessons
This was not an overnight success for Antetokounmpo or the Bucks. Milwaukee won just 15 games in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season and made a big jump to 41 victory in 2014-15. Milwaukee’s first three playoff appearances with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in 2015, 2017 and 2018 ended in first-round losses.
They cycled through coaches: Larry Drew, Jason Kidd and interim Joe Prunty.
Giannis Antetokounmpo advanced to the postseason for the first time in 2014, Jason Kidd’s first season with the Bucks.
After hiring Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee posted an NBA-best 60-22 record in 2018-19 and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. It took a 2-0 series lead against Toronto and then lost the next four games.
Last season, Miami rolled the Bucks in five games in the Orlando bubble, which was not easy for the Bucks. Jacob Blake was shot and seriously injured by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and it had an impact on Bucks players. They boycotted a playoff game, and then-Bucks point guard George Hill questioned why the season resumed amid social justice protests and a global pandemic.
After the Bucks lost Game 5 to the Heat last season, Budenholzer said, “What the team stands for, the character, the humanity to stand on the right side of history like we did … such a great group. Winning’s important, we had high expectations starting the season, throughout the season, coming here. You always want to realize those expectations, the relationships, the character, what this group did, it’d be great to have both (social/racial justice and winning), but if you’re going to choose one, I’d like to be with guys with high character and stand for something.”
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Even in this unique COVID-restricted 2020-21 season, the Bucks had obstacles. They trailed Brooklyn 2-0 in the second round, losing Game 2 by 39 points, but won the series, taking Game 7 on the road.
Against Atlanta in the conference finals, Milwaukee dropped Game 1 at home then lost Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended left knee in Game 4. It was a 2-2 series, and Milwaukee won the next two games without their star. Then, they were down 2-0 to the Suns.
“We never got down, we’re still playing, we still have a chance. That’s the way we felt, no matter if we were down in the game or the series, it didn’t matter,” Middleton said. “We knew each time we took the court we had a chance to win. And we have everybody in the locker room and organization that believes and that is never going to give up until it’s completely over. That’s who you want to play with, guys who are going to fight to the end.”
They relied on that character.
Chapter 3: Middleton, 2nd-round pick to All-Star
Middleton was not a star – not even close – when the Bucks acquired him in 2013 in a trade with Detroit. Middleton wasn’t a throw-in, but the deal centered on Brandon Jennings going to Detroit and Brandon Knight going to Milwaukee. Then-Pistons exec Joe Dumars was reluctant to include Middleton, a second-round pick who just finished his rookie season, but he was the only player who could make the trade work from a financial standpoint within the confines of the league’s trade rules.
He fought for minutes in Milwaukee, and season by season, he improved his overall game to the point he became an All-Star and a player who averages 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and is almost a 50%-40%-90% shooter from the field, 3-point range and free throws.
Khris Middleton was acquired by the Bucks in 2013. He was a No. 39 overall pick by the Pistons in 2012 and averaged 6.1 points and 1.9 rebounds in 27 games in his rookie season.
Now, he is sniper. He had five 30-plus point games in the postseason, including 38 against Atlanta and 40 against Phoenix in Game 4. His third quarter effort in Game 5 helped Milwaukee snag the first road victory of the Finals.
“Not every path or every player coming out is perfect,” Middleton said. “It’s tough. To be in the league is tough. To be 450 players, 500 players, G League, all those players, but to stick with it and have faith and believe in yourself at all times, even when it’s not going your way, to continue to keep working, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what every player in this league does, even around the world, you keep working, you keep believing in yourself to get to this point.”
Middleton and Antetokounmpo joined the Bucks the same season and became the franchise cornerstones.
“We formed a bond, a brotherhood since that first year we’ve been together,” Middleton said. “We struggled together. But we both saw in each other there was no give-up. It was all motivation to be better and not be embarrassed. Year after year we challenged each other to be better. Challenged each other to be better leaders, better teammates.”
Said Antetokounmpo: “There was nobody in this world that I would rather do this journey with than that guy.”
Chapter 4: Putting the right personnel in place
Bucks general manager Jon Horst took over for Hammond in 2017 and sought the perfect players to add alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton, who Horst convinced to sign long-term deals with Milwaukee.
Trial and error ruled but it wasn’t lack of effort. Horst had an inclusive process that included scouting, research and development, salary cap management and basketball strategy and analytics. Horst made deals and turned the roster over. Of the players on the 2019 conference finals team, just Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo remain.
Beyond those five players, the other main contributors (Jrue Holiday, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis Jr. and Bryn Forbes) were not on last season’s team.
The trades for Jrue Holiday (21) in the offseason and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline were instrumental in the Bucks winning a title.
The preseason trade for Holiday and trade deadline deal for Tucker pushed Milwaukee into championship territory.
Holiday didn’t have a great shooting series, but he played outstanding defense and finished with 12 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds on Tuesday. And Tucker is the kind of hustle guy every team wants.
“What Jon Horst has done to put together a team, he’s the greatest GM in the league,” Budenholzer said. “I’m a little bit biased, but to be his partner, for him to go out and get Jrue Holiday, to have the guts to make that (trade), to recruit guys, to get P.J. Tucker midseason, Bobby Portis in the offseason. Stick with Khris, Giannis and Brook and Pat and these guys, and you go up and down the roster, Jon has done an amazing job.”
Chapter 5: Budenholzer evolves
In the oppressive Phoenix heat, Budenholzer got his steps in using the hotel treadmill and listening to music. In Milwaukee, Budenholzer took long walks along the Lake Michigan shore.
A two-time coach of the year, Mike Budenholzer was often criticized for being too rigid. But he altered his ways this season.
“I actually try to save my voice on my walks,” he said. “I actually have been on a walk with my girlfriend and said we can’t talk. We put our headphones in. I’m listening to music and just trying to literally not talk or say a word, and just check out for a little bit. The walks in Milwaukee are amazing, Lake Michigan and just around there. It’s been good for me.”
A two-time coach of the year, Budenholzer has been the subject of criticism: too rigid, not flexible enough and unwilling to play Antetokounmpo and Middleton more than 35-36 minutes in key playoff games. He increased their minutes as necessary this postseason.
And with upgraded personnel, Budenholzer adapted. With Holiday, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Tucker, Lopez and Connaughton, he was more versatile with his defensive and offensive strategy.
“It’s just a credit to the players,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve been pushing and trying to get better. The players embrace everything. They are amazingly coachable. They take it and soak it in and they have made the best of it. They have done that from day one this year. So I’m happy for the players. I’m impressed by them every day.”
Chapter 6: New owners invest in team, city and players
Longtime U.S. senator Herb Kohl sold the Bucks for $550 million in 2014 to a group led by billionaires Wes Edens and Marc Lasry.
Getting a new arena was integral to keeping the team in Milwaukee.
“Either the team had to build a suitable venue that’s appropriate for the NBA or they had to move,” Edens told USA TODAY Sports in 2018.
The Bucks ownership group led by Wes Edens (second from right) and Marc Lasry (far right) invested resources to help build a championship team.
With public and private funding, the Bucks constructed Fiserv Forum and a new practice facility across the street.
“Our goal is to win a championship, and to do that, we’re going to do everything to be the best,” Lasry said. “We think we have the best fans. We’re in a phenomenal city. So, let’s have the infrastructure to support that.”
Ownership has committed more than half a billion dollars in salary to Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday.
Antetokounmpo tied it all together – the unbelievable background story, the small-market struggle, the roster overhauls, the coaching changes and the partnership with Middleton.
“Coach Bud believed in me,” Antetokounmpo said. “He told me that that in order for me to win, in order for me to be great, I have to trust my team. I have to make the right pass. I cannot be stubborn. I have got to trust the process.
“It was a three-year process. I want to thank all of these guys. I’ve done it all on the court and I’ve done it all off the court and I keep going. I can’t stop. That’s my personality. I cannot stop.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JefZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trusting the process helped Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo win NBA title