MILWAUKEE — Lefty Gomez, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher and part-time philosopher, was the guy who came up with a phrase that has stood the test of time:
“I’d rather be lucky than good.”
Of course, you can argue that’s fine and dandy if you just want to be good. But if your goal is to be great, you need to be both lucky and good.
Which brings us to our newly minted NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, a team that was far better than good when it came to talent on the floor, and a team that benefitted from its share of good fortune during this historic playoff run to win its first NBA title in 50 years.
So let’s roll the tape.
Hard to find the words, I know. Primal screams of joy, yeah, just go with that.
The Milwaukee Bucks, with another exhausting, scintillating, edge-of-your-seat 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, are your NBA champions.
It’s been 50 years since you’ve been able to say it: “The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA Champions.” So it’s OK to repeat yourself. All day long if you like. Or, for the rest of year, if you wish. Trust me, people will understand.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the player Milwaukee believed in enough to choose and the city and organization he believed in enough to stick around, was named series MVP after a career-defining 50-point, 14-rebound, 5-block night.
“It means a lot,’’ he said. “I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me, thank my teammates, man, they play hard every freaking game. I’m proud of this team. I wanted to do it for this city. I’m happy to get it done.”
Once again the Bucks raced out to an early lead, opening a 29-16 advantage in the first quarter but, as they’ve been prone to do, they gave it all back by halftime.
But it was Antetokounmpo who all but willed the Bucks to victory in the second half, enabling fans across the world to remove their hands from their mouths and instead rise up and put those hands together over the game’s closing seconds.
“These players, they are champions every day,’’ said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “Every day they come to the facility, they are champions. They’ve been great at getting better every day, they’ve been great at competing, and they’ve been great at playing together. And it’s made them champions tonight.’’
And every night for the rest of their lives.
Here's how the Bucks got here:
It wasn’t David Bakhtiari-esque, far from it, but given the way things have gone for Wisconsin sports teams over the last several years, it appeared to be a prelude to just another playoff run that would end in disappointment.
The Bucks’ Swiss army knife, Donte DiVincenzo, goes down in Game 3 of the opening-round series against the Miami Heat with a torn ligament in his left ankle. He would be done for the year.
“You’re there for him, you let him know how much you are about him, how important he is to us, including going forward,” said Bucks coach Budenholzer. “He can help us. His energy is infectious. He understands. Despite how hard it is, he’s going to be better, stronger going forward and we’ve got to collect ourselves going forward.”
The Bucks would go on to sweep the Heat in four games and face the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The series turns on its head 43 seconds into Game 1.
The favored Nets lose one of their Big Three when James Harden pulls up lame with a hamstring injury. He would leave the court and not be seen again the rest of the game.
The Nets would go on to win the opening game 115-107, but all the attention was on Harden and his availability for the remainder of the series.
"I didn't realize what had happened until he had started walking off the court, but we supposed to run [a] play and he wasn't in his spot, and I looked at him. He was grimacing," said Kevin Durant. "It just sucks. It sucks. It sucks because I want him to be out there.”
And that was the question now facing the Nets: Did they need Harden to take down the Bucks?
"You know, we got a lot thrown at us this year, so we were, in a sense, well trained for this event," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "I'm heartbroken for him. I don't know what's going to happen. I have no idea.”
Down 2-0, the Bucks race out to a 21-point lead at Fiserv only to give nearly all of it back by halftime.
From there, it was essentially a brickfest, with both teams finishing the game shooting under 38%.
With 1:23 to go, the Bucks found themselves down 83-80 and their season hung in the balance.
But they rallied with baskets by Kris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and a pair of free throws by Middleton put them up 86-83 with 2.1 seconds to play.
But the Nets had one last chance. And they had Durant.
Now the degree of difficulty was off the charts as P.J. Tucker was draped all over Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo was closing in with an outstretched arm. But we’re talking Kevin Durant here. His aim was spot on, but the shot was a smidge strong as it hit the back of the rim and bounced away. By an inch, or so, the Bucks were back in the series.
"It doesn’t matter how you do it this time of year," Budenholzer said. "You’ve just got to find a way to get it done."
No kidding. Can I get an “Amen” for that?
With Harden still sidelined, the Nets endure another left hook to their emotional psyche when they lose another member of their Big Three.
This time point guard Kyrie Irving injured his right ankle after making a layup and landing on Antetokounmpo’s size 16 shoe midway through the Bucks’ 107-96 win that tied the series at two games apiece.
“I have no idea what is going to happen with Ky in the coming days,” said Nash postgame. “We will cross our fingers and hope that it is better than, I don’t know — better than what? — better than missing the next game?”
Nets Twitter, needless to say, was all abuzz afterward with angst and analysis, like the following from Derek C.
“This is why you wear high tops. High tops are specifically designed to protect the ankle from rolling like this. But no, everyone wants to look cool in low tops. Might cost Brooklyn the season, because I don't see Kyrie coming back before game 6, maybe game 7.’’
Now you can debate Derek C’s argument, but his “might cost Brooklyn the season” statement; he was definitely on to something.
It was as if the Barclays Center was full of Peter McCallisters, the father from “Home Alone,” exclaiming when returning home to find his forgotten son:
“Kevin, Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!”
Kevin Durant put a performance for the ages and came within what, an inch, or less, of likely ending the Bucks’ season?
Trailing 109-107 with six seconds to play in Game 7, Durant drilled a shot over Tucker that initially appeared to be a three-pointer and had everyone believing the Nets had taken a 110-109 lead with one second on the clock.
“Yes!” screamed broadcaster Marv Albert. “With one second remaining! One second left and Durant hits a three!”
But, he didn’t.
Kevin, Kevin, Kevin, Kevin wears a size 18 basketball shoe on his size 17 foot, and whether that was the difference or not, Durant’s foot was on the line and this game was going to overtime, where the Bucks prevailed 115-111.
“I thought it was a trey, but my big-ass foot stepped on the line,” Durant said. “I saw how close I was to ending their season.”
Durant played all 53 minutes and finished with 48 points, but it was Giannis and Kris Middleton who made the plays in overtime and carried the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta.
“At the end of the day, I try not to get too high, not to get too low. But I almost got emotional a little bit out there because the team really tried their best,” said Antetokounmpo, who finished with 40 points. “We kept our composure. We were down 2-0. A lot of people didn’t believe we could make it.”
To those who admitted they were wrong, we commend you.
Perhaps if referee Sean Wright was standing a couple of inches to the right, or to the left, who knows how this series would have played out?
But Wright was in the wrong place when, after Trae Young threw a pass that was deflected by Holiday along the sideline, he turned to get back on defense but stepped on Wright’s foot, resulting in a bone bruise that would lead him to missing Games 4 and 5.
But the end result after Young’s injury was a 113-102 win for the Bucks and a 2-1 series lead.
It was simply an accident. And it hurt the Hawks in ways we’ll never know.
“I didn’t see him,” said Young, who was the linchpin for the Hawks in the playoffs, averaging 28.8 points a game. “I guess I’ve got to have eyes in the back of my head now to see who’s behind me.
“It’s sore right now. It’s hurting. It’s frustrating.”
This looked to be one of the worst days in Bucks’ history, by far.
In the third quarter of a 110-88 Game 4 Hawks win, Giannis elevated to contest a Clint Capela alley-oop. And when he came down, you could almost hear the SportsCenter announcer say, “A warning to some of you at home. You might want to look away.”
Giannis hyperextended his left knee upon landing. It wasn’t a pretty site, and it left Budenholzer pacing the sideline looking as if he wanted to throw up.
Twitter lit up with “Prayers up” tweets from the likes of LeBron James, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and even our old friend, The Iron Sheik.
For we were all wondering the same thing. Did Giannis’ knee ligaments just turn into spaghetti, which would mean not only losing him the rest of this season, but most of next season as well?
“Whenever you see an injury like that; last night I literally stopped. Stopped and held my own knee,’’ said ESPN basketball analyst Jay Williams. “Just understanding how that hyper – and I hope it’s just a hyperextension – but that looked bad.’’
There is no structural damage to Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee after his awkward landing last night in Atlanta; ligaments are sound, sources tell @ZachLowe_NBA and me. Timetable to return is unclear.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2021
Milwaukee sets Guinness Book World Record for Sighs of Relief.
The good news is Giannis remarkably returns to the starting lineup.
The bad news is the Bucks’ lackluster play leads to a 118-105 loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Phoenix.
And because there is always that one guy who overreacts and says, well, stupid stuff, we bring you Undisputed’s Skip Bayless, for entertainment purposes only.
“I believe the Suns are going to sweep. The point is Phoenix is just better than them and I don’t like the body language and the chemistry and the unity and the eye test with Giannis in there. Again, he’s flamed out again and again and again in big playoff series. They’ve had three and four games where they’ve just blown, all partly because they get too Giannis-dependent. … They build a wall, he doesn’t have a mid-range game; he flames out. He’s not that guy, he’s not alpha, he’s not takeover. He has superstar ability without superstar intangibles, so I think this is going to go from bad to worse.”
After rolling the Suns 120-100 to climb back into the series in Game 3, the Bucks face essentially another must win in Game 4.
And it was touch and go.
Suns guard Devin Booker was destroying Milwaukee with his mid-range game scoring 42 points and, as an added bonus, was apparently given a special dispensation to commit as many fouls as he wanted.
Milwaukee was clinging to a 101-99 lead with 1:28 left and then it came; The Sun Block.
The Suns ran a pick-and-roll action with Booker and Deandre Ayton and it look golden. Booker threw a pass high and away from any defender, and Ayton was already in the air before Giannis had a chance to turn around. But Giannis flipped his hips, read where Ayton was, read where the ball was, and elevated on his left knee – the same one everyone feared had turned to mush days earlier – and met Ayton at the rim. Blocked it. All ball.
Middleton added a basket and six free throws down the stretch to cap off a 40-point night as the Bucks prevailed 109-103.
“One of those ‘Oh, s---’ moments,” said Middleton. “We gave up a layup, and next thing you know [Antetokounmpo] is blocking it.”
Antetokounmpo admitted he thought he was about to get dunked on.
“How bad do you want it?” he said of his end-of-game mindset. “How bad do you really want it? And just leave-the-game-swinging kind of mentality. Try to be aggressive. Try to get stops. Try to set screens. Do everything physically possible to put yourself in a position to win this game.
“I think everybody was feeling that. That's what we did.”
The always pivotal Game 5, and the Bucks managed to come up with their second straight history-making play to preserve a 123-119 thriller and take a 3-2 series lead heading home for Game 6.
The Bucks coughed up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and with less than 30 seconds remaining the Suns had possession down by one.
And then came A Holiday Steal and the Valley-Oop.
Devin Booker, the man with the hot hand and a second straight 40-point game, decided to drive into the lane, sans screen. Bad decision.
Cut off by Tucker and Antetokounmpo, Booker turned to go the other way but there was Holiday waiting for him, and he willfully made the rip and the steal.
“He’s physical. He’s strong ... he’s got quick hands,” Connaughton said. “It was a first-team all-defensive play.”
Holiday headed up court, saw Giannis stick his index finger in the air indicating he wanted a lob, and then just did what great point guards do: There was the perfect pass, a Giannis flush and, less we forget, the Mean Mug. Game over.
“I think most times you just want to pull it out and run the clock,” Budenholzer said. “But Jrue and Giannis in a two-on-one, just to put two points on the board. I think just trusting their instincts, trusting them. Giannis getting a bucket and putting us up (three points). They’re playing. They’re competing. That’s what we need."
And, suddenly, “Bucks in 6” was far more than a battle cry.