MILWAUKEE — The Eastern Conference believed its path to June had sunlight once LeBron James headed West, unaware of the physically larger shadow presenting itself in a nearby Midwestern city.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have put every so-called East contender on notice for the foreseeable future. There was no Process or a famous hoarding of tradable assets while James kept the East on lock for eight straight springs. Yet is was a diligent, trial-by-fire ascension that has made the Bucks the scariest team this side of Oakland.
Only a sleek 7-footer crossing the country for greener pastures can keep Milwaukee from starting a streak of dominance, and the Toronto Raptors are merely the latest victims after a 125-103 loss in Game 2 of the East finals Friday night.
When Kawhi Leonard sat down in the second quarter and let out a big sigh, it was almost a quiet acknowledgement that the Bucks pose too many questions and the answers won’t be found in this series.
The Boston Celtics were written off as a dysfunctional outfit that couldn’t come together to match their talent instead of realizing the Bucks’ relentless pressure caused them to fold.
The Raptors wear that same look of resignation, and if the Philadelphia 76ers were in this spot, they’d be wearing the same clothes.
Too many weapons, too many ways for the multifaceted Bucks to come at you, with everyone in coach Mike Budenholzer’s rotation able to dribble, pass and shoot at an elite level. It sounds simple enough but consider this: Portland has two elite players who do that, and so does Houston. It allows the champion Golden State Warriors to hone in on those teams defensively and shut off the valves sooner or later.
The Warriors have three such players, as long as Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins are inactive.
Every member of the Bucks’ starting five can do it all to varying degrees of efficiency, making it impossible to pinpoint where the hits will come from.
You just know the hit is coming, and so far, no one has been able to deny the Bucks’ rushes.
Milwaukee’s biggest opponent has been rest, and if Game 2 is any indication, it could be in for plenty before the NBA Finals begin.
“We want guys that have high IQ’s. We try to develop them, we try to empower them,” Budenholzer said Friday night after the Bucks took a 2-0 series lead.
“Giannis and Khris [Middleton] and [Eric Bledsoe], they do a great job empowering their teammates, trusting their teammates and letting their teammates play. It’s what they’ve done all year.”
The dismantling of the Raptors by night followed the continued demolition of the Bradley Center — the Bucks’ former home —by day, a view that only slightly obscures a growing downtown scene that mirrors the Bucks’ present and future.
Budenholzer called himself a lucky man to have the job of coaching Antetokounmpo, but the Raptors were probably luckier, given the NBA’s recent format of waiting until late June to unveil its season awards.
In the past, Game 2 would’ve likely been the scene for Antetokounmpo to hoist his first MVP trophy in front of a thirsty crowd, thanking his teammates, coaches and front office for helping him to that historic position before unleashing holy hell on Toronto.
He’ll have to wait for that day in a made-for-TV presentation, but the Bucks’ ascension to greatness will not be delayed or deferred. The dejected looks on the faces of the Raptors seemed to illustrate that, even as they head home for two games north of the border.
The Bucks are hard for the casual fan to embrace as title contenders, with very little in the way of championship pedigree and no recent failures at the doorstep of the elite. The 82-game regular season has been derided by critics as an exhibition that is “too long,” but the Bucks used it to build championship habits that are shining through now.
The Bucks’ road has come largely by surprise, the unknown commodity entering the playoffs despite its pristine regular season.
The last team to fit that profile: The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, a team that made the second round once before storming the league on the way to its first title since 1975. People knew Stephen Curry as an otherworldly talent, but a champion? It took a while to believe, but the point has been pounded home plenty of times since.
Antetokounmpo, a player hard to peg in his early years because of his unique skills, fits into the same box. We’re watching a champion grow before our very eyes. It’s just a matter of when and how many times he will etch his name in history.
“Did I see it at the beginning of the year? Did I see this a few years ago? Previous years, I always wanted to be a great player in this league and make this team a championship contender, but you don’t realize how much it takes to get there,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports after a 30-point, 17-rebound, five-assist showing that felt routine for him.
“Even now, we’re up 2-0, we’re not there yet. We have to make sure we close out games, Game 3, Game 4, whatever it takes to get to the Finals. What I’ve realized, it takes 15 people to be a championship team. Not just one guy.”
In Game 1, Brook Lopez stepped forward to make big plays in the fourth to rescue the Bucks from lethargy. On Friday, it was Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon who helped bury the Raptors.
Three reserves, mind you, which includes Ilyasova being on his third tour of duty with the Bucks. Before Friday’s 7-of-11 outburst, Ilyasova had scored in double figures just once since the start of the second round.
The roster assembled by GM Jon Horst is big on versatility, length and shooting. Even when the Bucks were atop the East in the regular season, they didn’t hesitate to add Nikola Mirotic as a stretch shooter, or lock up Eric Bledsoe with an extension midway through the year.
But make no mistake, Antetokounmpo is where it starts, their own brand of lottery luck when they took him No. 15 overall in 2013.
“The attention he creates, his basketball IQ, his aggressiveness, the way he plays. That sets up everything,” Middleton said. “The players Jon Horst and Bud [Budenholzer] have tried to bring in have done nothing but complement. I try to be a piece that can do it all: secondary scorer, ball-handler, whatever, I work to be in that role.”
Middleton is a free agent after the season, and the Bucks will make it a priority to keep him around.
“It’s rare to keep pieces together. Hopefully, we can make deep playoff runs and compete for championships together,” Middleton said.
That looks to be an inevitability, and the rest of the East should realize there’s a sizable gap between themselves and these Bucks.
“Previous years, I didn’t see this much, but now I see we have something special,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “The front office sees it, and hopefully we can build on this and be a championship contender for a lot of years.”
It’s hard to picture June without the NBA being in the Bay Area. It may be time to start thinking about those Finals being in Milwaukee every year.
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