After the Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA championship since 1971 last year, they seemingly fell off the radar.
The Bucks took a backseat as several other stories dominated the headlines in the ensuing months. Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status and Ben Simmons’ refusal to suit up marred the preseason discussion before the season-long implosion of the Los Angeles Lakers and the tight Most Valuable Player race took most of the attention. Milwaukee has been on cruise control for most of this season, but the looming playoffs have reawakened the beast that won the title a few months ago.
Despite losing their closer Khris Middleton to a flagrant foul ejection midway through the final period, the Bucks staved off the Brooklyn Nets in overtime, 120-119, at the Barclays Center. It was a rematch of their Eastern Conference Semifinal slugfest last season and the last few minutes felt eerily similar to their Game 7 duel.
Brooklyn’s 12-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant missed a jumper at the regulation buzzer that could have won them the game. He then redeemed himself by making three free throws with 8.7 seconds left in overtime to give them a one-point lead. Things briefly looked grim for Milwaukee without Middleton to create one last play to steal the match before Giannis Antetokounmpo swooped in to save the day.
Long criticized for his perceived inability to do anything more than “run and just dunk”, Antetokounmpo immediately called for the ball after Durant’s last free throw and fearlessly went downhill towards the basket. He made it all the way to the hoop before drawing a foul that set him up for a date with another one of his long-time weaknesses and arguably the most notorious one: Free throws.
With only three seconds left in the game, the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player calmly made two free throws, to the surprise of everyone watching, that helped them seal the victory. Durant then missed another potential game-winning shot on the other end that wrapped up the win for the Bucks.
It was only a regular season game yet Milwaukee used it as an opportunity to remind the rest of the league that the road to the championship goes through them. After biding their time between fourth and fifth place in the Eastern Conference for most of this year, the Bucks are now 48-28 and only 0.5 games behind the top seeded Miami Heat with six games left on their regular season schedule.
Now rounding into form, it seems more likely than not that they can snatch first place and the accompanying home court advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs that it bestows.
Antetokounmpo has led the charge for them, pumping in his best month of the season so far in the month of March where he averaged 32.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists. This has allowed him to creep into this year’s MVP race and he should garner strong consideration alongside the season-long frontrunners Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
The six-time NBA All-Star has the numbers to back-up his case, highlighted by a career-high 29.9 points per game together with 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, a steal, and 1.5 blocks. However, the narrative around Antetokounmpo goes well beyond statistics as perfectly encapsulated during his phenomenal showing against the Nets.
Even after finally winning a title and gaining recognition as the Finals Most Valuable Player, the 27-year-old Antetokounmpo has continued to grow his game and address his weaknesses this year. He has made strides as a playmaker, as seen when he took over after Middleton’s premature exit, and improved his free throw shooting (From 68.5% to 72.2%) as witnessed by all when he sank two with the game on the line. His jump shot still has a ways to go, but it is quite encouraging to see his much improved shooting motion and it is only a matter of time before the results show up on the court.
Antetokounmpo has become a much more complete player and is poised for another deep playoff run as Milwaukee looks to repeat. His work ethic has always been the foundation of his greatness and it is refreshing to see that not much has changed following his recent success
unlike Anthony Davis.
He is now the Bucks’ all-time leading scorer with 14,216 points after surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14,211) versus Brooklyn. All indications are that the more important milestone for him though is to overtake Abdul-Jabbar for titles won with Milwaukee–something that he might just accomplish this June. The 27-year-old Antetokounmpo is already great and it is frightening to think that the best is still yet to come.