MILWAUKEE — Beware Western Conference Elitists, you Splash-Brother-obsessed, nothing hoop-noteworthy occurs on the east side of the Mississippi River sorts: The Milwaukee Bucks are legitimate contenders to grab an N.B.A. championship.
They feature long and spongy jumpers and are relentless on defense, they gang-rebound and have a battalion worth of shooters who are more than willing to take and nail a 3-point shot. And their resident super hero – a.k.a. Giannis Antetokounmpo – calls to mind LeBron James in taking nearly as much pleasure in dishing the ball to a teammate as scoring.
There you have it. Email complaints to my editor ‘cause this New Yorker born-and-bred whose crystal ball is often cracked has gone and jinxed this swell upper Midwest team.
There should be no shrugging off the Milwaukee Bucks after they behaved like a proper favorite and demolished the Boston Celtics and put them out with the recycling. They took the series, four games to one, and the game Wednesday night was 116-91. Reporters were able to start polishing their leads by halftime.
Celtics Coach Brad Stevens walked briskly into the postgame news conference not inclined to mince words. “They are one hell of a basketball team,” he said. “They are better than we are. And they earned it, and it was clear.”
Stevens spoke as coaches do of seeking answers in video of games, but his urgent need was for a team therapist. The Celtics were rent by odd jealousies all season and gears that ground and locked up. The Flat Earth scholar and point guard Kyrie Irving was not the least of the team’s problems. He fancied himself a leader and yet spent the year sniping at the young players he purported to lead.
In Cleveland he had chafed at playing Robin to LeBron James’s Batman.
But after shooting 21-for-65 in the last three games of this series, he would best conceive of his summer free-agent hunt as a protégé in search again of a true leader. He walked into the postgame news conference in a metaphorically appropriate manner, which was to say alone.
“It’s a basketball journey,’ he told the press. “They put a stop to that.”
That they did. Now as the Bucks prepare for the conference finals, the Western Conference teams might consider what is coming steaming down the tracks at them. Giannis, who was born and raised in Athens and goes by the politically incorrect name of The Greek Freak, was clever in ways that were supposed to elude 24-year-olds. Last night his shot was off, the defense collapsed on him and his finger rolls weren’t rolling and yet he finished with 20 points and eight rebounds and eight assists.
When statements were required early in the game, Antetokounmpo had a release ready to go. In the first quarter, with the Celtics not yet on the D.O.A, gurney, the Celtics center Al Horford got the ball underneath the basket. He faked and spun a shot toward the rim.
Antetokounmpo rose and with those long Elastic Man arms and hands of his knocked the ball into the second row.
More impressive was his temperament. His jump shot is still under construction and the 6-foot-11 center-forward-point guard remains most comfortable driving toward the basket where his stride, strength and length alternately confuse and terrify defenders. The Celtics became wise to that and collapsed on him in the lane.
This confounded Antetokounmpo in the first game of the series and made him modestly miserable. He was a quick learner. Last night he feinted toward the lane and dished expertly to Kris Middleton or Connaughton or Bledsoe or well, anyone. He piled up assists.
In the postgame news conference, the star pointed at his muscular guard Eric Bledsoe and recalled his words of encouragement after the Bucks lost the first game of the series. “I got a text from this guy and he said, ‘we got these guys’.”
This remains a young team heading to its first conference finals and so each step becomes a test. Statistics provide reason for comfort. The Bucks split two games with Golden State this season by a total of 3 points. More broadly, the Bucks compiled a 20-10 record against teams in the fearsome Western Conference. The Warriors returned the favor, piling up a 22-8 record against East Coast teams. (The Toronto Raptors, another Eastern Conference team, were 22-8 against the West).
Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose defensive sets and intensity are so much a part of this team’s success, took the podium after the game. He interviewed for the job of Knicks coach last summer and that team in its non-infinite wisdom passed on him. Budenholzer and Warriors coach Steve Kerr – who was offered the Knicks job a few years ago and declined it – are charter members of The No Second Thoughts Club.
“We talk about defense every day, and the commitment just sets the tone for us” Budenholzer said. “For Giannis to trust the pass and trust his teammates” was great.
That maturity was on display in the third quarter when the Celtics took a run of sorts at the Bucks. Celtic Jayson Tatum appeared ready to grab a rebound and put in a shot. Until, that is, Antetokounmpo jumped and stretched those arms and ripped the rebound away from Tatum and set off down the court like a coyote on the hunt.
When the Celtics had the presence of mind to collapse on him, the Bucks star shimmied and kicked the ball off to his sharpshooting teammate Pat Connaughton, who promptly hit a 3- pointer.
The Bucks were back up by 16 points, 76-60, and you wanted to email the Western Conference. Beware, dudes. A monster could be heading your way.