The Milwaukee Bucks ended on Saturday with almost half a century of waiting to return to the NBA Finals and complete a project that began with the selection in 2013 of an unknown Greek second division player, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The unpolished diamond blossomed into one of the league’s great forces, a 2.11m tall player, massive physical power and extraordinary versatility, with the ball handling and speed of a point guard.
His meteoric rise filled him with individual awards, including two MVP (Most Valuable Player) awards in 2019 and 2020 and one for Defender of the Year, which never seemed to fill the Greek with the Bucks’ continued frustrations in the playoffs.
Don’t call me MVP. Do not call me double MVP until I win a championship, “he remarked in September upon receiving his second trophy at only 25 years old.
On Saturday, the Bucks earned the right to fight for that championship in the Finals, against the Phoenix Suns, but this time Antetokounmpo was not leading the team on the track.
A horrifying knee injury, which turned out to be less serious than feared, knocked him out of the final two games of the series against the Atlanta Hawks and threatened to keep him out during his long-awaited first Finals.
Their manager, Mike Budenholzer, said Saturday that they will decide Antetokounmpo’s availability “day by day.”
The Greek, however, is determined to collect his strong bet on the Bucks, a franchise with a market much smaller than that of the big American cities and that did not qualify for the Finals since the distant 1974.
– “This is my home” –
In December, Antetokounmpo signed his long-term renewal with the team that gave him his first break in the league, picking him 15th in the 2013 Draft.
Unlike other superstars, the Greek decided to ignore the siren songs of the NBA media to go to a team with greater prospects of victory than the Bucks, who had just suffered a painful failure in the Disney World playoffs.
From the same cold city of Milwaukee, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanded to leave after leading the team to its only ring in 1971 and defeat in the last Bucks Finals in 1974.
«This is my house, this is my city. I am fortunate to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next five years. Let’s make these years count. The show continues, let’s go for it, “said the power forward after signing the largest contract in the NBA, which will bring him some 228 million dollars.
Relieved by the continuity of their greatest figure since Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks focused on surrounding him with the necessary pieces to survive the increasingly tough Eastern Conference, where the Brooklyn Nets of the ‘Big 3’ (Durant, Irving and Harden) and Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers.
– The Battle of Brooklyn –
The first player of proven experience to arrive was point guard Jrue Holiday, for whom the Bucks handed over the first three rounds of the Draft and to then-starting game director Eric Bledsoe.
Bringing defensive aggressiveness to Milwaukee’s weak perimeter, Holiday became the team’s third sword alongside Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the cold-blooded shooting guard who handles crucial possessions.
The Bucks also seized veteran power forward PJ Tucker and renowned backups Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes.
Although he re-signed a spectacular season, averaging 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists, Antetokounmpo reserved energy for the playoffs and Milwaukee fell from first place in the East in the regular season to third.
After taking revenge on the Heat, their executioner at Disney World, with a 4-0 sweep in the first round, the Bucks got into one of the great playoffs of recent years in conference against the Nets.
Milwaukee emerged from a series marked by the injuries of Irving and Harden and that was defined in a dramatic seventh game in Brooklyn in which the Bucks ruined Kevin Durant’s heroic display in overtime.
The team cherished the great goal of the Finals but, when they had controlled the last tie against the Hawks, Antetokounmpo suffered a hyperextension of the left knee when trying to block a dunk by Clint Capela in the fourth game.
With the Greek supporting from the bench, Middleton and Holiday saved the Bucks and led the win over the Hawks from Trae Young, who was also injured in the series.
Now Milwaukee is only four games away from glory, but against the potent Phoenix Suns of Devin Booker and Chris Paul, their aspirations hinge on the recovery of Antetokounmpo. (AFP)