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Bucks Progress Report: NBA Finals

What grades do the Bucks receive for their championship over Phoenix?

Milwaukee Bucks vs Phoenix Suns, 2021 NBA Finals Set Number: X163696 TK1

Is it a fruitless exercise to grade a Finals win? I’ll accept that, but one outgoing thought I have after the Bucks’ first championship in 50 years is that in spite of how well they played—obviously well enough to win it all—they could have played significantly better. Overall the team was outstanding in this series after steadily improving during the postseason run, though I believe that if certain individual performances were better, Milwaukee could have steamrolled any opponent in their way of a title regardless of either team’s health situation. It almost felt like they never truly peaked: I believe their ceiling was even higher given the consistently poor perimeter shooting. If the core of this team returns (and the only question marks are Bobby Portis and P.J. Tucker), they could be right back in the Finals in 2022 with an even better regular season and playoff record to show for it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: A+++++++++ (last series: A)

Enough pluses? This was one of the best Finals performances of all time at 35.2 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 5 APG, 1.2 SPG, and 1.8 BPG, not to mention two legendary clutch plays on both defense (The Block) and offense (The Oop). Oh right, and we all thought his season—and his next season—was over about two weeks ago. The first player to record 50 points in a closeout game in the NBA Finals since Bob Pettit in 1958, it came on 17/19 at the line as we all expected. Much has been and will continue to be written about Giannis’ coronation as Finals MVP with a series that had him being mentioned in the same breath as some of the best to ever play it like Jordan, Shaq, Magic, and LeBron. We’re talking some of the top ten players EVER. I just have to two things to say. First: he’ll have a statue in front of Fiserv Forum in due time. Second: I’ll argue he is officially the best player in the NBA right now.

Khris Middleton: A+ (last series: A)

Coffee is for closers, and something tells me that traveling across the world for the Olympics the day after a championship parade following a six game Finals series will require a lot of it. Good thing that Middleton proved this series that he is one of the league’s preeminent closers (also, let’s not act like he’s the Bucks only closer as the national media has, because the MVP made plenty of buckets in the clutch this postseason). Among the other longtime questions we can officially lay to rest after this season is if Middleton is a good enough second fiddle to win a title. Sure, he had one bad night and a couple mediocre outings, but 24 PPG for the series plus a huge 40 point effort in a game that determined whether Milwaukee would head to Phoenix tied 2-2 or down 3-1 answers that question once and for all. The man is a star and will see his number in the rafters one day.

Jrue Holiday: A (last series: A)

I’ll readily accept that Holiday’s shooting (a measly .361 FG%) in the Finals was worth concern, but the great thing was that it didn’t matter. Outside of his sensational Game 5—on the road, don’t forget—and similarly strong Game 3, the efficiency numbers and percentages were downright ugly. You know what wasn’t, though? His assist numbers. Holiday had the most clutch assists of any player this year and topped noted assist man Chris Paul over the six game set. He capped off his postseason with back-to-back double digit assist nights to average a cool 9.3 in the series, so by all means he was a positive on the offensive end, despite the missed layups and threes. On the defensive end of the floor, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe what he did. We may have just witnessed the best defensive Finals by a guard ever. Capable of shutting down one of CP3 or Devin Booker each night—crucial when facing arguably the league’s best backcourt—Holiday had the “Point God” in jail multiple times and completely bottled Devin Booker up in a tight Game 6 to ensure a title. Then there was The Steal, which will haunt his Olympic teammate Booker and Suns fans forever. He’ll be in Milwaukee years to come; should 21 be retired as well?

Brook Lopez: A (last series: A+)

Lopez was quite good offensively in spurts during this series, notably during the third quarter of Game 6 and throughout Game 1. There were times this series I was hoping for more of him given the huge size advantage that the Bucks enjoyed, especially when Deandre Ayton was succeeding at the rim. As a team, Milwaukee did a great job on the young Phoenix center but I thought Lopez stymied him the most as the Finals went on. His minutes were lower than I expected given how much he played against Brooklyn, who liked to go small. Unlike then, the Bucks’ closing lineup didn’t include him in this series, but it didn’t matter. Milwaukee wouldn’t be in the Finals without him, and had it not been for even the 24.5 MPG he received during the series, it may have gone seven.

P.J. Tucker: A (last series: B+)

For a player whose impact is never told statistically, Tucker put up two rather impressive figures when it mattered most which deserve mention. He shot 50% from the field (on both twos and threes!), which feels like a bonus on top of a more crucial number: his 12 offensive boards. That was second on the team (Giannis had 24) and he had one more offensive rebound than his 11 defensive rebounds on the series. Five Bucks finished with double-digit offensive rebounds as the team posted an incredible 29.2 ORB%, a figure which would have led the league by a mile (New Orleans put up 26.3% in the regular season, topping the NBA by nearly two percentage points). Since he was often guarded by an undersized Booker or Paul on offense, he stuck out as the most active guy on the offensive glass for the second series in a row. He switched onto Booker a fair bit too, and though Tucker never was his primary defender, the veteran stopped him several times in the midrange.

Bobby Portis: A (last series: A)

I certainly did not expect to see Portis getting significant fourth quarter minutes during Game 6, but he wasn’t out there for strictly energy. The man was on somewhat of a tear in the second half, and he might agree that though his 16 points is nowhere near a career high, it was the finest game of his life given the circumstances. That 35 point third quarter to erase a 5 point halftime deficit does not happen without him and his crazy eyes. Hell, even his high-stepping might have helped from an fan engagement perspective, despite the technical. Portis also found his three-point stroke again this series going 7/16 after two series in the basement; a big boost to a team that was uneven (but improved!) from deep.

Pat Connaughton: A+ (last series: A-)

Ironically, Connaughton was -21 in Game 6 and 0/4 from the field after five fantastic games where he made 15 of his 30 three point attempts. That plus/minus surprises me, because his defense was solid and he again had a big impact on the defensive glass on Tuesday evening. An elite rebounder for his size, he continually grabbed tough boards away from bigger Suns hoping for second chance points, and was a big part of the rebounding prowess on the other end. Still, the three point shooting was clearly his most important contribution to this victory, but don’t forget how well he checked the Suns guards on the perimeter. Gone is the Connaughton who routinely bit at shot fakes and sailed into the second row (though he did get fooled at least once this series), now he’s very credible man-to-man defender. This Finals was huge for his reputation: both his shooting and defense earned him praise from some national pundits like Zach Lowe.

Jeff Teague: C (last series: B)

By the end of the series, Teague was only in for brief second quarter spurts to give Holiday a breather. Though double digit minutes in those first few games might seem excessive, it paid off towards Games 5 and 6 when Holiday played 42 and 46 minutes. In those early games he took a few too many shots for anyone’s liking, though he never really hurt the team at any point. It’s weird to describe a player’s value as being someone who lets the stars rest, but given Milwaukee’s thinned backcourt he did his duty, and got a ring for it.

Bryn Forbes: C- (last series: D+)

Forbes was gone from the rotation by Game 4 and it’s hard not to be disappointed with how this postseason went after his insane Miami series, given how much his 3P% cratered, rendering him unplayable. He saw the court briefly in Games 2 and 3, lifted quickly upon missing multiple shots; just like that, his playoff contributions were done. Again, it fortunately did not matter since the Bucks have another guy who hits about half of his threes plus rebounds and defends, but I hoped we’d see him break out of his month-long shooting funk. I suppose his Game 1 was fine with his 2 triples, when he was just -1 in a game where 5 of the 8 Bucks who appeared were at least -10. He’ll likely opt out of his deal and get a good raise, but Forbes still needs to prove himself over a long postseason run.

Mike Budenholzer: A+ (last series: A)

#FireBud is dead and gone. For good. The “fan” who brought a “Fire Coach Bud” sign to the victory parade should be banned from Fiserv Forum for life. Look, Bud was never a bad coach. In fact, he was always a very good one. Yes, the criticisms were well earned at times for someone who in playoff runs past was too stubborn, doctrinaire, and slow/unwilling to adjust. Make no mistake about it, though: he changed big time. As national voices began echoing long-held sentiments from the anti-Bud section of the Bucks fanbase, calling him and his team “dumb,” Bud was steadily making the correct defensive adjustments. Whether it was reducing the drop distance off Paul and Booker between Games 1 and 2 (which definitely was effective; Booker just happened to make nearly everything this series even when in tight coverage) or moving away from switch-everything looks that the Suns exploited in those first few matchups, Bud had all the answers on defense this Finals. The Bucks halfcourt offense got off to a slow start this series, but a lot of that has to be due to poor outside shooting because they continually generated good looks. Milwaukee clearly had the coaching edge in addition to an experience advantage, as the Bucks were greater than the sum of their parts (a hallmark of a great coach) for the first time since Bud took over after winning a coaching battle in each series. This ring, his likely upcoming contract extension, and his place among the best five coaches in the game, is well-earned.

Garbage Time As: Jordan Nwora (1 minute), Sam Merrill (1 minute), Elijah Bryant (<1 minute)

DNP As: Donte DiVincenzo (injured), Mamadi Diakite, Justin Jackson, Axel Toupane

Get Well Soon As: Thanasis Antetokounmpo (2 minutes), Jim Paschke (35 years)

Now that we have our answers regarding those hand-wringing questions about whether Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, and Bud were good enough in their own rights to win a title, let’s retire all those permanently. Someon will still likely put KD—and perhaps even LebRon or Steph Curry—ahead of Giannis in their player ranking, but the majority of NBA folks will recognize now that the Bucks have the best player in the game. While they may not be favored to win it again given Brooklyn’s presence (though it’s fair to question if that big three will ever be healthy simultaneously), Milwaukee now firmly belongs in any title discussion as long as their three stars are healthy and on the roster. We can count on the latter for at least another three years. The next questions about this team and these individuals are much more fun to consider: can they do it again? Can this be a dynasty? The forecast looks better than ever for those quandries. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.