As fans inside Fiserv Forum realized the dream unfolding, Antetokounmpo soaked in their adoration, found an empty seat, plopped down and cried. While embracing his two new prizes — the Larry O’Brien trophy, awarded to the NBA champion, and the Bill Russell trophy, given to the Finals MVP — he reflected.
“I couldn’t leave,” Antetokounmpo said about his decision to re-sign with the small market Bucks. “There was a job I needed to finish. ... Coming back I was like: ‘This is my city.’ They trust me, they believe in me.”
Antetokounmpo was set to become the biggest name in free agency this summer before committing to the Bucks in December, a move validated by his Finals heroics. Earlier in the series, Antetokounmpo declared he was no Michael Jordan. But his Game 6 performance — 50 points and 14 rebounds — was legendary, capturing Milwaukee the way Jordan once ruled Chicago.
His coach, soaked in champagne, summed up Antetokounmpo’s greatness.
“He’s off the charts,” Mike Budenholzer said as the Bucks continued to celebrate around him.
Hours before the victory, a mob marched down Old World Third Street chanting the fans’ longtime mantra: “Bucks in six!” In 2013, point guard Brandon Jennings captured their hearts when he boasted how the Bucks, the bottom seed, would take down the Miami Heat in six games. It didn’t happen. But eight years later, Jennings, labeled as “Bucks legend” when shown on the jumbo screen, was in the house to witness the completion of his prophecy.
Over the past eight years, the franchise has latched on to other promises — “Own the Future” and “Fear the Deer.” The Bucks’ personality, however, remained consistent with a certain Midwestern romanticism of hard work and hustle.
The roster was manufactured by Jon Horst, whose journey to becoming one of the youngest general managers in the league consisted of shoveling excrement while working as a trailer park superintendent. The man calling the plays, Budenholzer, started his pro career in Denmark before returning to the United States to work as Gregg Popovich’s video coordinator. And the face of this movement only agreed to take up basketball in Athens so his mother, father and three brothers could receive 500 euros a month.
“I love the players, I love the roster, I love the team. I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I am and be a small part [of the title],” Budenholzer said. “What Jon Horst has done to put together a team, he’s the greatest GM in the league.”
Antetokounmpo — spindly and raw when taken 15th in the 2013 draft — came to embody the antithesis of NBA fame while overpowering the league.
The playbook created by superstars who orchestrate their way into bigger and brighter markets, he shunned. And in December, Antetokounmpo’s commitment to the Bucks with a five-year, $228 million extension was such a low-key affair that he broke the news on social media.
“This is my home, this is my city,” Antetokounmpo wrote.
Around him, Milwaukee didn’t build a superteam but rather created a crew for winning basketball.
The Bucks bartered their future to get Jrue Holiday, the key acquisition of the offseason. The price to get a lockdown perimeter defender came with sticker shock: Milwaukee had to part with Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, two first-round draft picks and the rights to swap two additional first-rounders. No one, however, was lamenting the loss of first-rounders in Game 6 as Holiday made his impact during the Bucks’ comeback.
Though Holiday spent most of the night mired in yet another shooting funk (4 for 19 from the floor), his shot clock-beating corner three-pointer gave Milwaukee a 71-66 lead in the third quarter. Holiday scored seven of his 12 points in the period.
This season, while Holiday provided the missing element, Khris Middleton performed as the resident sidekick. More important than a glue guy — and at times the most important scorer late in games — Middleton has spent eight years playing his role next to Antetokounmpo.
On Tuesday night, Middleton wasn’t nearly as effective as he had been earlier in the Finals (averaging 24 points, six rebounds and four assists) but when there was a midrange jumper to make, Middleton showed up — as he did with his 17-footer with 56.9 seconds remaining.
Besides the future Olympians, Bobby Portis, who became an obsession of the fan base in just one season, showed up. The “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” serenade followed all his momentum-swinging plays, especially after Portis found an open lane and scored to extend the Bucks’ lead to 92-86 in the fourth quarter. Also, there was Pat Connaughton flailing and coaxing Devin Booker into an offensive foul. Moments later, P.J. Tucker swatted the ball out of a frustrated Booker’s hands.
But everything orbits around Antetokounmpo. When the Bucks trailed 47-42 at halftime, Antetokounmpo took over and scored 20 of his team’s 35 third-quarter points. He tried to stuff every shot he defended — and was mostly successful with five blocks. He even made his free throws (17 of 19).
“I made my free throws tonight and I’m a freakin’ champion!” Antetokounmpo said like he was a giddy 19-year-old kid who first came to Milwaukee.
But once again, he choked back tears when thinking about the sacrifices his parents made when they moved from Nigeria to Athens. He thanked his family for being part of his journey and in his home, his city, Antetokounmpo joined Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as NBA champions.
“I hope this can give everybody around the world hope and believe in their dreams,” he said.
— Candace Buckner
Read highlights from Game 6 below.
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