The Milwaukee Bucks besting the Brooklyn Nets still doesn’t feel real. Years and years of heartbreak have inevitably led to trust issues between our fanbase and the franchise we blindly follow. All day Saturday, I felt my stomach churn in anticipation of what I presumed would be another gut punch. And then, after all the shouting, ref cursing, cries of agony, free throw woe, and begging for buckets to fall, after all that, this team, from top to bottom, flipped the goddam script.
It all starts at the apex, with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the charge after absorbing a healthy dose of criticism earlier in the series. At Brew Hoop, we ran numerous articles hoping for more from Milwaukee’s superstar. The 3-pointers drove us batty, but when it all mattered, our MVP played every bit the part in battling with Kevin Durant for 50+ minutes: 40 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in 50 minutes. But it’s not really about the stat line, it’s about in overtime, when Milwaukee was ice cold and looking exhausted. Instead, Giannis waved off his fatigue, asked for the ball with 1:30 left, and promptly fouled out Blake Griffin before attacking Kevin Durant two times in a row and getting a hook shot to fall in and break the spell. He wanted the ball, nay, demanded the ball, and finally brought the Bucks forth.
All series long we wanted to see him attack the basket more, play within himself, insert your chose chiche. Well, he delivered, coming up huge in regulation by keeping Milwaukee in it while his two dancing partners were clanking shots off the side of the backboard. Considering the gravity of the moment, it’s probably the best performance by a Bucks player in the Playoffs this century. Sure, there are still some quibbles with his decision making and a long way to go still, but Giannis took one big euro-step towards gaining the respect he rightfully deserves after pulling Milwaukee through this Playoff series.
Giannis did it all.— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 20, 2021
40 PTS | 13 REB | 5 AST | 1 BLK pic.twitter.com/cAd1O3Tc6d
Then there’s Khris Middleton, the understated second fiddle who marches to the beat of his own midrange footwork. The sheer calm he displayed in hitting what wound up being the game-winning shot in overtime was sublime. Watching him in that moment, as he cooly planted his foot for a turnaround swish over Bruce Brown, you could visualize the hundreds of hours he’s spent in the gym practicing that very thing, for that very moment. His Game Six performance will go into the annals of Bucks history alongside Giannis’s Game Seven. Bouncing back from his abysmal performances in the first two contests, Middleton provided the only consistent shooting from deep and continued to dig deep for buckets at timely moments. His steals were underrated momentum builders in the last two tilts as well. Watching him stem the scoring waves of Brooklyn in Game Six was brilliant. On top of everything he was tasked with offensively, he gamely matched up with Durant at stretches of the final minutes of regulation and overtime when P.J. Tucker was out.
KHRIS MIDDLETON IS GOOD.— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 20, 2021
23 PTS | 10 REB | 6 AST | 5 STL pic.twitter.com/5X0EbLWwx5
And what about Jrue Holiday? The offseason acquisition who was going to raise this team’s Playoff ceiling so they could finally get over the hump? Well...uh...he stunk up the joint this series. It was brutal at times to watch, and the Eric Bledsoe comparisons were inevitable. It felt haunting. To put the capper on this series with the kind of shooting performance he had through 45 minutes of Game Seven, it seemed like the curse of the Bucks Playoff point guard slot was doomed to repeat. But then, something magical happened in the final few minutes: he hit an open three and proceeded to show a level of confidence that is genuinely impossible for me to understand.
Despite having no rhythm, he went onto hit a stepback triple, get fouled and go to the line, nail a baseline jumper and create easy shots for Giannis rolling to the rim. All in the final five minutes! We waited all damn series for the Holiday acquisition to truly pay off, and he showed it then. It doesn’t at all make up for his dismal play up to that point, but what an unbelievable way to turn our heads all the way around. For all the amazing moments from Game Seven, this reaction from Jrue may be my favorite. This is the sight of a man throwing all of us haters off his back (at least in that brief moment...)
Oh, and we can’t forget about Brook Lopez. Throughout various points this season, as Milwaukee experimented with various permutations of defensive schemes, there were calls to trade Lopez from the fanbase. Given the push towards switching, what place did a traditional zone drop center have for this team? Turns out, an integral one. Lopez went an incredible 46 minutes, coming up with the block of his career on Kevin Durant down the stretch. As much as Milwaukee needed all four of his blocks and every contest he could muster, his 19 points on 7-11 shooting were massive, especially in the first half while Khris struggled. Lopez has consistently showed up for this team every Playoffs, and this series was no exception. He showed every ounce of his value, and came up with timely shots (shotclock violation aside I suppose). Knocking down the final two free throws was a perfect capper.
The Nets All-Time Leading Scorer.— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 20, 2021
19 PTS | 8 REB | 4 BLK | 7/11 FG pic.twitter.com/he0Lar2BrZ
P.J. Tucker, he of the “We Dogs” fame, bucked the trend of Milwaukee in-season acquisitions turning into turds in a punch bowl come Playoff time. No disrespect to Marvin Williams (who I hope is enjoying retirement) and Nikola Mirotic (who was so horrific in his Playoffs that he bolted for Europe) but we’ve had two straight years of these “difference-making, Playoff-proven” veterans coming in and blowing chunks. Well, no longer Bucks fans. Finally, Jon Horst’s midseason acquisition paid off in spades. PJ Tucker said he was going to fight for every inch, and he went after it for every second he shared the court with Kevin Durant. He also quietly went 3-5 from deep and added three steals and two blocks in Game Seven. He was brought in to shoot corner threes and play hardened defense on Durant. What more could you ask from a guy who people thought might’ve been washed when he came over from Houston? I’m overjoyed we get to continue watching this man play.
Lastly, we have to talk about Pat Connaughton. The man took a decent chunk of slander before the season for his contract (a contract which seems reasonable enough now), primarily due to the apparent failings of Milwaukee’s front office and their knowledge of cap minutiae. If my bosses somehow screwed up and had to pay me more money, ya, I’m gonna take that too. Well, when it mattered, and Bud was down to only his trusted few, Connaughton hit three triples and batted out some rebounds. Credit also to him for coming back after getting roasted by KD in Game Five and playing gamely with some hard show and recover coverage late in the game. This was sixth man stuff epitomized.
There is also Mike Budenholzer, who endured an outsized amount of chatter about having lost his job to someone else, despite him still being the active coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. While there are still plenty of quibbles with his lack of in-game adjustments, maddening commitment to “The Khris play” during late game ATO situations and a far too often stagnant offense, credit to the guy for going small in the fourth to pull out Game Six, then riding Brook Lopez nearly the whole way in this contest. The defense was excellent almost uniformly throughout the series, and while the offense was occasionally unconscionable, they at least found improvements as the games went on. His job doesn’t seem safe by any measure, but he’ll live to fight another series.
We’ve all watched this team let us down before. We all assumed Kevin Durant’s last second jumper to end regulation would go in. At the end of overtime, I still couldn’t believe it when his shot airballed and there was merely 0.3 seconds left. It seemed impossible. Instead, it meant this team, its rotation whittled down to the barest cupboard, had mustered up something deep inside to pull out of a 2-0 hole, then a 3-2 hole, and secure victory, in overtime, on the road. For one series, they flipped the script. Now, it’s onto the next one to see whether we get the storybook ending everyone’s hoping for.