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NBA

The Bucks Exorcised All Their Demons

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JULY 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 20, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks have won their first title in a half-century, after dropping the first two games of the Finals, briefly losing their two-time MVP to what looked like a catastrophic knee injury, and, most critically, shrugging off the weight of two consecutive postseason runs that ended in severe humiliation. The Bucks have never been the cleanest executors or the most comprehensibly organized team, and their four playoff series required them to answer serious questions. They nailed them all and are now worthy champions of a strange and gory postseason, thanks mostly to Giannis Antetokounmpo physically wresting control of the Finals away from Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

There is no other person we could possibly start with than Antetokounmpo, who ended Game 6 with 50 points, 16 boards, six blocks (plus another monstrous swat that came a fraction of a second after a shot clock violation), and 17-for-19 shooting from the free-throw line, which is a stat line that puts him among (or alone above) all sorts of rarified company. If you watched Antetokounmpo’s geometrically audacious block on Deandre Ayton after defending both halves of an alley-oop to win Game 4, you would think, “Surely this will be his signature Finals moment,” and then when you saw his thunderous alley-oop to win Game 5, you probably thought, “Ah, okay, yes, there it was.” Both of those were distinctly cooler plays than anything Antetokounmpo did tonight, though his Game 6 masterwork was his most dominant performance of, hell, the whole playoffs, and at no point could the Suns do anything to slow him down.

Maybe the attritional damage you take when guarding Antetokounmpo adds up over the course of both a game and a series, because the physical edge he’s always had over Ayton and whoever else the Suns threw at him seemed way more pronounced tonight. Both teams looked severely depleted, and yet, there was Antetokounmpo, pounding. This is how it went all night:

With such an undeniable physical advantage over tired opponents on the road, Antetokounmpo’s dominance felt somewhat inevitable, though it is worth putting this championship in context. The Bucks have spent the past two years being called frauds, with Antetokounmpo in particular brooking some of the harshest criticism for winning back-to-back MVP awards and then promptly following up those honors with back-to-back postseason defenestrations. If losing four straight to the Raptors in 2019, including blowing a chance to take a 3-0 lead in a double-overtime game, because they couldn’t summit a literal wall was grim, getting laughed out of the bubble (after receiving meal and taking bus) by a four-seed was even sadder. Well into this very postseason there persisted an idea that Antetokounmpo might just be a regular-season stat-stuffer who feasted on bad teams and got his in transition, two skills that mean nothing in the heat of a playoff run. James Harden certainly seemed to hold that opinion:

These playoffs saw the Bucks facing up against everything that haunted them. They faced the Heat in the first round, and after Khris Middleton won Game 1 in overtime, Milwaukee rolled through the next three games by a combined 78 points. Next came the Nets, now armed with Harden (well, kind of) and primed to test the limits of how good a defensively oriented team could really be against a team with three S-Tier creators and scorers. That series seemed like it would be this year’s fraud-making one for the Bucks, as the Nets rolled to a casual 2-0 lead and at one point led Game 2 by 49 points. Harden and Kyrie Irving’s injuries dramatically changed the calculus of that series. After being on the losing side of an all-time great playoff performance, it was the length of Kevin Durant’s toe that kept the Bucks alive when they should have maybe lost. Still, weird shit happens in the playoffs, and the Bucks got through that series because they never let up.

Injuries were the story of these playoffs, and though the Bucks got very lucky against the Nets, they also lost starting guard Donte DiVincenzo early on to a foot injury, and then lost Antetokounmpo to what looked like the clearest snapping of tendons you’ll ever see. The Bucks then had to win two games without him, which they promptly did as Middleton and Jrue Holiday balled out and unceremoniously ended Trae Young’s charmed playoff run.

Somehow Antetokounmpo came back from that catastrophe injury within a week, and ripped the Suns to pieces. There’s a certain harmony to one of the many NBA superstars who were laid low by injuries coming back from his to win the championship, one that was being fitted for a potential asterisk the second LeBron James and the Lakers lost. There’s nothing you can say to diminish the Bucks and Antetokounmpo’s championship, though. His kneecap almost flew out of his body and then three weeks later he was out putting the Finals to bed with a 50-point game. He punched through the Giannis Wall, ascended to a level where his baglessness ceased to matter, and carried his team to four straight wins in the Finals with a run of truly legendary performances. What a satisfying way for the season to end.