Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2020-21 NBA title: The Freak inherits the earth

Giannis Antetokounmpo, versatile play and some luck were the keys to the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2020-21 NBA championship triumph.

If he wasn’t slamming the ball into the bucket, Giannis Antetokounmpo was feeding Jrue Holiday, P. J. Tucker or Khris Middleton in the perimeter as the Phoenix Suns had no answer.   -  AP

The Greek Freak, as Giannis Antetokounmpo is fondly called, has won every major individual award in the NBA — he is a two-time Most Valuable Player (2018-19, 2019-20), Defensive Player of the Year in 2018-19 and Most Improved Player in 2016-17, besides being on a clutch of All-NBA first- and second-team selections. But the one thing that has eluded the 6’ 11”, 242-pound behemoth with pterodactyl arms, a chiselled body and relentless athleticism, is the ultimate NBA championship.

Despite winning the MVP in the previous two seasons, Antetokounmpo couldn’t steer his team to success in the playoffs as the Milwaukee Bucks first faltered against a Kawhi Leonard-inspired Toronto Raptors in 2018-19 and were then comprehensively beaten by the Miami Heat in the pandemic-marred 2019-20 season. The Bucks were staring at an indecisive future after their disappointing loss in 2019-20 but quickly made a series of moves that allowed them to steady their squad before the rigours of the 2020-21 season.

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Antetokounmpo first signed a max extension, committing himself to the small-market Milwaukee team and scotching speculation about joining another contender from among the big-market teams. The Bucks quickly traded their point guard Eric Bledsoe, who had been mediocre in recent playoff series, and brought in defensive-minded point guard veteran Jrue Holiday, whose addition did not come cheap as the Bucks had to give up four future first-round picks in the NBA draft.

Defensive ace and forward P. J. Tucker joined the team in midseason after a rebuilding Houston Rockets squad let him go. Coach Mike Budenholzer also used the entire season to make the Bucks play differently in order to prepare for the playoffs after the Heat got the best of their single-minded, no switching on P&R (pick and roll) plays, drop coverage model on defence. The Bucks also relied much more on forward Khris Middleton as a closer after opponents found a way to contain Antetokounmpo by collapsing defenders into the paint and giving him very little space to attack the bucket.

Coach Mike Budenholzer also used the entire season to make the Bucks play differently in order to prepare for the playoffs.   -  AP

 

The adjustments came in handy for the Bucks in every playoff series — they redeemed themselves by thrashing the Heat 4-0 in the first round but ran into the formidable and star-studded Brooklyn Nets in the second round. They came into some luck after losing the first two games as Nets guard Kyrie Irving first got hurt and had to withdraw even as shooting guard and playmaker James Harden was forced to play with a bad hamstring. Despite a strong showing by Nets superstar Kevin Durant, who single-handedly won Game 5, the Bucks held their own and managed to squeeze out a 4-3 win. The inexperienced Atlanta Hawks did not pose much of a challenge, but Antetokounmpo hyperextended his knee mid-series and that gave the Bucks some jitters before Holiday and Middleton willed the team to the finals to face the Phoenix Suns.

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Going into the finals, there was uncertainty about Giannis’ injury and despite his recovery, the Bucks lost the first two games as the Suns backcourt ran riot against both the switching and one-on-one defence ploys. And then the Greek Freak show began.

In the next four games, Antetokounmpo averaged 37.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1 steal and 1.75 blocks, punctuated by a-50 point, 14-rebounds, five-block performance in Game 6 as he slashed, spun, Euro-stepped and muscled his way into the paint against a light Suns frontcourt. If he wasn’t slamming the ball into the bucket, he was feeding Holiday, Tucker or Middleton in the perimeter after drawing double teams as the Suns had no answer to one of the most dominant performances in an NBA final ever.

After Giannis Antetokounmpo hyperextended his knee mid-series against the Atlanta Hawks, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton willed the Bucks to the finals to face the Phoenix Suns.   -  AP

 

Middleton was a little inconsistent but always came through in the clutch. Holiday might have blown hot and cold on offence but was a rock on defence, coming up with clutch steals and throttling either of his assignments, the sharpshooting Devin Booker or the crafty point guard veteran Chris Paul. Paul had willed the Suns to reach the playoffs after a decade in the wilderness, but had to be satisfied only with being the Western Conference winners.

Coach Budenholzer’s season-long quest to prepare the Bucks to play in a malleable manner allowed the team to maximise the Greak Freak’s bountiful talents by integrating other role players seamlessly. It is no wonder that the Bucks finally managed to win a championship exactly fifty years after a certain Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had delivered the franchise’s first trophy along with fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson.

Despite winning the 2020-21 championship, it will not be easy going for the Bucks next season once several All-Star players return to action from injuries – Irving and Harden for the Nets, Anthony Davis for the Los Angeles Lakers, Klay Thompson for the Golden State Warriors and Leonard for the Los Angeles Clippers. But as long as they have Antetokounmpo at his best, they will have more than a puncher’s chance of retaining the championship.