Masterful Giannis Antetokounmpo carries Bucks to new heights

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What happened in Milwaukee Tuesday night had to be very recognizable and relatable for Toronto Raptors fans. You could see that same energy building and ready to explode into joy as it became clear that the unthinkable was going to happen — the team and the city that seemingly could never catch a break was going to get it done.

It’s been a 50-year wait in Wisconsin, and it took the son of Nigerian refugees born in Greece to lead them to their first title since 1971.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was forceful and masterful in Game 6 as he led the Bucks to a 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns. But he had help. Kris Middleton — his only remaining teammate since his rookie season in 2013-14 — delivered time and time again in the clutch. His fallaway jumper with 57 seconds left kept the Suns at bay when it seemed like the Bucks were wobbling. Bobby Portis was a spark off the bench and Jrue Holiday was a rock defensively and offered just enough timely offence to be a difference-maker.

With the trophies handed out and the champagne flowing in Milwaukee, here are some takeaways from Game 6.

Antetokounmpo adds another chapter to Hall-of-Fame career

Antetokounmpo was already a star. He’s a two-time MVP, a defensive player of the year winner, five times all-NBA and four times all-defence, all in the past five seasons of an eight-year career. But now he’s something more: an NBA champion, a Finals MVP and a franchise star who has lifted a team from a small, decidedly unglamorous market to the league’s mountain top, after starting with a 15-67 team in his rookie season.

Amazing.

If he simply racks up unremarkable excellent seasons from now until he retires, he’ll be an instant Hall-of-Famer, one of the best players of his era and a player for the ages. But Antetokounmpo is only 26 and in his eighth season. He’s still improving and learning how to use all his gifts at the highest levels of the game as the best defences load up and execute their game plans. But no matter what the Suns or anyone else did, it hardly mattered. Antetokounmpo came into Game 6 averaging 29 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists, joining Bucks icon Oscar Robertson as the only other player to do that in the post-season.

And this was before Antetokounmpo went off for 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Game 6. He’s not a perfect player and doesn’t exactly conform to the guard/wing scorer/playmaker ideal of the modern NBA superstar — think LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and on and on back to Michael Jordan. But he’s an ideal competitor — playing hard and without fear even when things aren’t going just his way. He’s athletically one-of-a-kind and he’s shown in this post-season that he has a way to keep getting his game off. He’s already got a career’s worth of iconic plays even in these Finals — ‘the block’ at the end of Game 4; ‘the dunk’ at the of Game 5 and then the ‘explosion’ in Game 6. He bounced back from injury and was at his best when the Bucks needed him most. And then in Game 6 with a chance to win a title he goes 17-of-19 from the free-throw line.

It’s too early to suggest that this is the start of something, but if it is the first installment of the ‘Giannis Era,’ we’re in for a treat.

Paul still searching for title

Chris Paul got the boulder higher up the mountain than he ever has before making his first finals in his 16th season and putting together an epic post-season has helped lead a young Suns team deeper into the playoffs than anyone — themselves included — could have ever hoped for.

It’s not the result he wanted and he’ll likely second-guess himself for some of his play in the Finals. His 15 turnovers in Games 2-4, most prominently, were a big reason that the Bucks were able to pull back into the series after trailing 2-0. He played well in Game 6 — 26 points and five assists on 11-of-19 shooting — but the Suns needed him to play great to force a Game 7 and Paul didn’t have that gear, not against the Bucks.

We’ll have to wait another year to see if Paul will get another chance to get the boulder he’s been pushing all the way up the hill and over the top.

Bucks fans emulate Raptors’ Jurassic Park in epic fashion

The Toronto Raptors were represented during this Finals, or at least their fans have been. The ‘Deer District’ was a sight to behold, with estimates of the crowd gathered there reaching as high as 65,000.

The idea that a game inside the arena could be shared with fans outside who can’t get tickets or couldn’t afford them was part of the vision for Scotiabank Arena when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment were planning it more than 20 years ago. They were caught off guard the first-time fans gathered there during the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ill-fated first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins in 2013 — there were more people than they expected and no clear strategy on how to move them in and out of a tight space.

When the Raptors hosted the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 the crowd had grown and the broadcasters couldn’t get enough of the scenes from outside the arena. By 2019 the crowds kept expanding exponentially it seemed as thousand took in the Finals games on big screens stretching all the way east along Bremner Boulevard. But there is more room outside Fiserv Forum so the crowds may indeed have been bigger than at Jurassic Park, but to me the Raptors still have the title for most crowd participation because of the all the satellite Jurassic Parks set up elsewhere in Toronto and across Canada. The Bucks have their title, but they can’t match that.

Budenholzer bounces back

A little love for Mike Budenholzer, everyone’s favourite punching bag of a head coach — and I’m not saying I haven’t taken my share of whacks. For what it’s worth, this would be the Bucks’ second title had he not continued to double-team a clearly diminished Kawhi Leonard in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals as the then-Raptors star was limping around on a sore knee after laying it all on the line and playing a career-high in minutes in Toronto’s double-overtime Game 3 win. As a result, Fred VanVleet got all the room he needed, finally got his three-point shot to fall and the series was tied and the Raptors never looked back. Had Budenholzer been less rigid in his game plan, the Bucks could have been up 3-1 back then.

But in this case Budenholzer was rewarded as he stuck to his game plan even after the Suns backcourt strafed the Bucks from the mid-range in Game 1 and 2, taking full advantage of the drop coverage they like to play their bigs. Devin Booker and Chris Paul put up 111 combined points on a True Shooting percentage of 60.6.

But the Bucks — and Budenholzer — stuck to his guns. By staying faithful to his base coverage and not over helping on Booker and Paul in the mid-range, Milwaukee was able to limit the Suns’ three-point volume and in particular their looks from the corners. Over time, things tilted in the Bucks’ favour, and Budenholzer deserves some credit for that. The Suns were 6-of-24 from three in Game 6 and the Bucks were able to keep Booker (8-of-22 for 19 points) under control too.

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