April 30, 2015; Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Chicago Bulls are in town to play the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the teams’ first round Eastern Conference matchup. The Bucks have survived the previous two games after starting the series down three games to zero to force this final game in Milwaukee, with hopes of taking it back to Chicago for a seventh game.
However, it did not turn out as such for the Bucks on this night.
Fast forward to the game’s second quarter, and the Bulls lead by a big margin of 58-28. Chicago’s Mike Dunleavy, who had punched Michael Carter-Williams earlier in the game, goes up for a three-pointer, only to be floored by Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is immediately ejected for a flagrant two foul, a foul which would lead him to be suspended for the next season’s opener. While some saw this incident as simply an act of frustration and sticking up for his teammates, others questioned Antetokounmpo’s maturity. Could the youngster who looked to some like one of the league’s future superstars handle all of the emotions and struggles that come with such a role within his organization?
This is the story of the coming of age of the Milwaukee Bucks.
After finishing with a fairly pedestrian record of 33-49 in 2015-16, the Bucks needed to turn things around to reach their potential. 2015-16 was a year for the team that brought as much hype as had been enjoyed in Milwaukee in years, possibly even since the great 2000-01 team. The organization had unveiled new uniforms, a new court and a new attitude within the organization. After a 2014-15 campaign that led to a playoff appearance, owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens had brought in a winning attitude that some fans believed that previous owner Herb Kohl had lacked. This attitude showed itself in the 2015 offseason, when the Bucks surprised the NBA world by jumping teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks to land Greg Monroe from the Detroit Pistons with a 3 year/$50 million contract. Monroe would end up 15.3 points along with 8.8 rebounds per game in his first year in Milwaukee, but questions remained on how he fit in with the young, athletic core that the Bucks had brought up over the previous few years.
This mindset when it came to taking chances continued into this past offseason, with signings of Matthew Dellavedova (4 yrs/$38M) and Mirza Teletovic (3 yrs/$30M) in free agency and the selection of wild card Thon Maker with the 10th selection.
The 2016-17 season did not start ideally for the Bucks, as they fell 107-96 at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets. For the next couple of months, there were great moments (Malcolm Brogdon’s Dec. 31 triple-double against Chicago; seven threes by Teletovic against Sacramento) and not so great moments (consecutive losses to Dallas and New Orleans in November). Then, the Bucks arrived at Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Knicks on January 4th, 2017. The two teams traded the lead early before the Knicks truly took control in the third quarter, capped with a 16-point lead on a Courtney Lee jumper with 3:21 left in the quarter. However, little by little, the Bucks clawed all the way back to 104-103 on a Greg Monroe free throw with 33 seconds to go. The Bucks found themselves with a chance to go for the win with less than 10 seconds left, and they went to the Greek Freek. Antetokounmpo took the ball outside the lane under the free throw line and proceeded to back down Lance Thomas further toward the middle of the floor. With just under two seconds left, Giannis took a massive step back and let a shot go off of his long fingers, which found its way into the net just as the buzzer sounded to give the Bucks a 105-104 win. With that game winner, his teammates mobbed him inside the world’s most famous arena and the NBA community took notice.
Since then (46 games), Giannis has tallied 1,008 points (21.9/gm), 379 rebounds (8.2/gm) and 225 assists (4.9/gm). He became the organization’s first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004 and first All-Star starter since Sidney Moncrief in 1986. He would lead the East in scoring with 30 points and several highlight plays, including a poster dunk over the back of Warriors star Steph Curry that even elicited a strong reaction from West All-Stars DeAndre Jordan and Curry’s teammate Draymond Green. Even with the multiple mispronunciations of the Greek Freak’s last name by legendary announcer Marv Albert, fans of the NBA got a look at what the future of the NBA looks like.
So, the question is, what has led to not only the maturity, but the evolution of a type of swagger for the Milwaukee Bucks this season? There could be many reasons for this, but it is important to look at three particular players: Greg Monroe, Jason Terry and Malcolm Brogdon.
Monroe has shown himself as one of the top stand-up guys on the roster this season, as he has been ejected from multiple games this season for retaliating on behalf of his teammates. Most notable of these were against Davis Bertans in a game against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season as well as against Nick Young when facing the Los Angeles Lakers. Both fans and players have expressed their appreciation for these actions by Monroe, in particular chanting his name, along with that of Michael Beasley, following the scuffle against San Antonio.
Terry, on the other hand, has proven to be a critical spark plug and energy-setter off the bench for Milwaukee. At 39 years old, Terry is likely coming to the end of his career, a career which has spanned nearly two decades and has seen him win a 6th Man of the Year award in 2009 and win a championship with the Mavericks in 2011. Terry’s championship winning pedigree and experiences as a player are things that he has been tasked to pass down to the young players coming up in the Bucks system, and it shows. After a big basket that forces an opponent’s timeout, Terry is almost always the first off the bench to high five those on the court and pump up the crowd. When he is on the court, he is doing much of the same, from his signature Jet celebration after a three to pumping up the crowd, as he did against the Knicks on January 6th by jumping on the scorer’s table after an alley-oop.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t exist in the Cream City (and Bucks fans are thankful that is not a world we live in), Malcolm Brogdon would have been the biggest revelation for the Bucks this year. Drafted 36th overall out of the University of Virginia, Brogdon was not expected to do much. However, with the season nearly over and a playoff appearance looming, Brogdon somehow is a Rookie of the Year contender alongside Philadelphia’s Dario Saric. He has accomplished this by sheer hard work and being one of if not the most consistent rookie in the class. As of April 10th, he is tied for 2nd in PPG (10.3) 1st in assists (4.3) and 1st in steals (1.1) among rookies who have played at least 41 games. He also leads the class in win shares (4.1) compared to New York’s Willy Hernangomez (3.3), and a full three points higher than Saric (1.1). He has also become a fan favorite in Milwaukee, who call him “The President”, a nickname carried over from his days at Virginia. Brogdon has also been shown to be an extremely humble person despite his quick rookie success.
Warning to the rest of the NBA: the Bucks are coming, so start looking over your shoulder now.