After defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the 2020-21 NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks were crowned this year’s champions, the first time we’ve been able to say that since 1970-71, a 50-year drought that finally saw championship rain fall again in Milwaukee.
This year’s Bucks will be remembered for a multiude of reasons, including their defense, resiliency and tough play down low, as well as for their championship superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, dominating his way to the first Finals MVP award of his career.
Below, we break down the seven biggest reasons why the Bucks are 2020-21 champions.
They were led by a generational talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo...
Not enough can be said about how great Antetokounmpo has been over recent years, but especially this season, after multiple postseason failures, to come back and win a championship is borderline storybook stuff.
Antetokounmpo’s flaws – his lack of shooting, first and foremost – are well-documented and have been exposed by multiple playoff opponents, even this year.
But even in spite of those flaws, Antetokounmpo’s rare abilities as an almost-7-footer to attack the basket, set up plays for others and bring the ball down the floor while possessing freakishly long arms and otherworldly sudden explosiveness make him a generational talent – one that finally has the ring he deserves.
Just look at Antetokounmpo’s work in Game 6 of the Finals.
50 points on 25 shots. Tied for the sixth-best scoring performance in championship series history, the second-best since 1993. That’s to go with 14 rebounds and five blocks, making him the first player in NBA history since at least 1962 with a 50/14/5 stat line in a Finals game.
He did that all while looking like a modern-day version of Shaquille O’Neal, absolutely unstoppable down low but capable of handling the ball… and making his free throws.
Antetokounmpo was so locked in in the outing, he even made 17 of his 19 free-throw attempts after shooting 55.6 percent from the stripe in the playoffs and 59.1 percent in the Finals.
Terrifying, historic, iconic performance by the two-time league MVP.
Antetokounmpo may not always be the guy to take over with clutch bucket-getting late in tight games, but his effort on both ends of the floor is unmatched, a unique trait for a superstar, and that drive and will to win finally got a chance to shine this postseason.
They were as resilient as any team we've seen in recent memory...
The Bucks dropped the first two games of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup against the favored Brooklyn Nets, a deficit many believed they wouldn’t bounce back from.
They dropped Game 5 of that series to go down 3-2 in the series after a masterful performance by Kevin Durant, and again, many thought it was over for Milwaukee then.
They even had to go to overtime in Game 7, on the road, with Durant on fire and a trip to the conference finals hanging in the balance.
In the end, however, the scoreline would read 4-3, Bucks.
Milwaukee followed that up by losing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Trae Young and Co., then losing Antetokounmpo for what many thought would be the rest of the playoffs – at least – in Game 4.
Even without their Greek superstar, though, the Bucks would come out on top in six games and earn their trip to the championship series.
Once there, Milwaukee came out flat against a well-rested and uber-confident Suns squad, dropping the first two games of the series by a combined 23 points. They responded to that by winning four games in a row, marking the first time all campaign that Phoenix lost four in a row, to win their first championship in 50 years.
That type of resiliency speaks to the belief the Bucks have displayed in each other all year long, built from a core that has spent seasons together by now, and to the job head coach Mike Budenholzer has done in keeping the team united and full of belief.
Their complementary pieces to Giannis stepped up huge when needed most...
It’s completely unfair to call players as talented as Middleton and Holiday complementary pieces or sidekicks, but in comparison to Antetokounmpo, most players in the league would fall under one of those two distinctions.
And when they were needed most, Middleton and Holiday stepped up in a huge way, the former with his vital one-on-one perimeter scoring and the latter with his defense on Devin Booker and Chris Paul, as well as with some clutch late buckets later on in the Finals.
Of course, it wasn’t just Middleton and Holiday, either, as the Bucks got important contributions from guys like PJ Tucker, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton at different points in the postseason and Finals, as well as from new fan favorite, Bobby Portis, who provided energy and low-post scoring off the bench.
Championship teams always need their other guys to step up along with their stars, and Milwaukee’s did just that.
They used their size to their advantage...
Many consider the modern NBA to be a perimeter-oriented game dominated by guards, and to an extent, they’d be correct to believe that.
However, the last two league champions, last year’s Los Angeles Lakers and this season’s Bucks, bucked the trend by supersizing and using their massive height and girth advantages to dominate opponents down low on their way to their respective title runs.
In last year’s playoffs, Los Angeles had the best rebound rate (53.4 percent) of any team that made it out of the first round, as well as the best offensive rebound percentage (30.4 percent) of any of those teams. Meanwhile in this postseason, ranked first among all playoff teams in rebound rate (53.1 percent) and sat second in offensive rebound percentage (35.5 percent).
Milwaukee also used their size pristinely on the defensive end, allowing opponents to shoot just 59.7 percent from within five feet of the basket, the stingiest rate of any playoff team this year.
When deployed correctly, size can absolutely still be a game-changer in the NBA, as our last two champions have proven.
They were finally rewarded for their sustained excellence...
Since Antetokounmpo blossomed into the MVP-caliber player he has become, the Bucks have been consistently excellent, only missing the championship hardware to prove it until tonight.
Since 2016-17, Milwaukee is the team with the most regular-season wins in the league. They’re also the team with the most wins in the playoffs since 2017-18.
Sure, they may have caught some breaks on the way to their championship this year, namely, the injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving in the much-hyped Round 2 showdown, but they’ve also had some bad ones before this year to keep them from winning a title sooner.
The best example of that came last season, when, despite having the best record in basketball, they were forced to play in a bubble and miss out on what could have been a crucial home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Who knows how the 2020 Eastern Conference semis between Milwaukee and the Miami Heat would have turned out had the first two games taken place on the Bucks’ home floor?
If you’ll recall, Milwaukee dropped both of those games, as well as Game 3. It’s unlikely, if not unimaginable, that the same would have happened without the pandemic forcing such strange circumstances on that year’s postseason.
Either way, when you’re as good as the Bucks have been for such a long time, you’ll eventually run into enough luck to take you all the way to the top of the mountain.
Their defense was excellent, and defense still wins championships...
Perhaps it was due to effort-related issues, but there’s no question the Bucks’ defense disappointed in the regular season, where they finished a shocking ninth in defense efficiency despite the abundance of weapons they have to deploy on that end.
Regardless, Milwaukee completely turned that around in the playoffs, going from giving up 110.7 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to just 106.8 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, the best mark among all playoff teams.
As we mentioned before, they also led all teams in paint defense in the playoffs, using their massive size and length to smother foes trying to score inside of the three-point line.
Milwaukee’s defense would get even better in clutch situations (five-point game with fewer than five minutes left on the clock), where they gave up a ridiculous 89.2 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any team that made it out of the first round by a good margin.
In a league where scoring is so dominant these days, having an elite defense can still lead your team to the highest of heights, a take proven by the Bucks this year who came out out of the campaign as champions despite ranking 11th in playoff scoring efficiency.
They had the least bad breaks of all contenders...
This one might come down to the Suns or Bucks, but any way you look at it, the Bucks did catch some solid breaks during their postseason run.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – as we’ve already discussed, their good luck this year offsets some of the bad luck they’ve had in recent seasons – but it’s true, there was some luck involved in Milwaukee winning the championship this year.
They avoided bad injuries, for starters, with even the Antetokounmpo scare amounting to just two missed games of action despite the Greek Freak suffering a very ugly knee twist. That, in and of itself, was pretty lucky.
The Bucks were also able to take advantage of major injuries to playoff opponents, namely, the Nets, who lost Irving and Harden for most of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against Milwaukee.
And even with those two injuries, the Bucks were an inch from elimination when Durant’s heave late in Game 7 including the superstar’s toe touching the three-point line. If Durant wore appropriately sized shoes, the Nets might have come out on top in the series even in spite of those injuries.
Nonetheless, Milwaukee earned their championship and no one can deny that. They simply played the teams in front of them and did what they had to do: win.