The Milwaukee Bucks’ long, strange odyssey back to the NBA Finals

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JULY 03: (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JULY 03: (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

You’re not dreaming it, Milwaukee Bucks fans. The Bucks are in the 2021 NBA Finals.

Milwaukee booked their trip to win a potential championship with their series clinching victory  over the Atlanta Hawks with a 118-107 win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s brought them back to the place where they have fought for 47 years to get back to.

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Not since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge and Larry Costello, the core four figures of the Bucks’ unmatched origin story, has the team been able to say they have made it this far in an individual NBA season. A lot of success, heartbreak, pain and excitement has come in the years that have passed since this point.

The Bucks under legendary coach Don Nelson routinely put them in a position to claw their way of the East back in the 1980s that only led to them getting mowed down by historic teams like Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. George Karl, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson headlined an unlikely run to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals that, once again, saw the Bucks fall to the biggest playoff foe, the 76ers, in seven games.

Lastly, what seemed to be a star crossed run to the Finals in Mike Budenholzer’s first year ended in absolute heartbreak as that year’s eventual champions, the Toronto Raptors, came back from a 2-0 deficit in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite having Bucks greats pass through the organization during those memorable runs, a better opponent or a terrible set of circumstances stood in the Bucks’ way until now. Yet, that’s only half of the story of why the road to back to the Finals has taken this long.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ return to the NBA Finals is a long time coming

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Bucks’ future in Milwaukee was a huge question mark.

A prolonged period of mediocrity, out of date facilities and a fanbase that had become disenfranchised with a lack of success and/or organizational plan had put the Bucks’ long-term existence in the Cream City in jeopardy.

Hope sprung anew in the arrival of a skinny, long-armed Greek teenager in Giannis Antetokounmpo and eventually, the second overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft that turned into Jabari Parker. And the threat of relocation disappeared with the arrival of the team’s current ownership group, a $100 million donation from former Bucks owner and Milwaukee native, Herb Kohl, and eventually, a new stadium deal to that became Fiserv Forum.

Still, the Bucks haven’t followed through a straight line towards success and contending for a championship in recent years. Antetokounmpo’s emergence as a superstar as well as Khris Middleton’s leap into a dependable, All-Star caliber player mitigated Parker’s debilitating knee injuries that shuddered his path towards NBA stardom.

A string of first round playoff exits under former head coach Jason Kidd led many to wonder whether he was the man to continue steering the ship for an up-and-coming Bucks team (he wasn’t). And those questions eventually followed Budenholzer as the Bucks eventually clicked into gear and tasted continued success since the days of Nelson and Del Harris, but failed to translate that into the postseason over the last two years.

After all of the questions regarding their play on the court and whether they could sustain and simply exist off of it, the weight of the last 47 years has finally been lifted off of the Bucks’ shoulders.

The resilience this Bucks team has shown over the course of this playoff run has come as a result of those heartbreaking playoff performances hardening them. Jrue Holiday, the Bucks’ star guard acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans, has been every bit of what the Bucks lacked alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Role players like P.J. Tucker, Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis have answered the call when the Bucks have needed it most this postseason, especially in light of losing Antetokounmpo to injury during the Hawks series.

The fact that the Bucks were able to book their trip to the Finals in two wins without their superstar in action is a testament to the improved makeup of their foundation and roster overall.

And then there’s Budenholzer, the embattled head coach who was fighting for his future in Milwaukee throughout this playoff run. Now, Budenholzer is one of two coaches in Bucks history to lead the team to a Finals bid, with the other being Costello.

There’s no right way to forging a path that now leads the Bucks to the Finals after all of this time. If anything, the Bucks are a shining example of how to soldier on when things don’t go exactly to plan. Middleton said it best himself upon reflecting after the Bucks’ Game 6 win over the Hawks, which comes courtesy of ESPN’s Malika Andrews.

"“It’s been a long journey,” Middleton said. “But it’s been a great journey. It’s been worth it. After winning 15 games in our first year here and seven years not making the playoffs, to the last two years thinking we had a chance and just didn’t do enough and now we’re here. This is what we’ve worked for.”"

Takeaways from Bucks' stellar Game 6 win over Hawks. dark. Next

Yes, there is still business to be done as the Bucks prepare for the Phoenix Suns going into the start of the Finals on Tuesday night in Phoenix. Time will only tell whether the Bucks have four more wins in them to finish the job, but their overdue return to the Finals leaves them with a chance to win their first title in 50 years. It’s truly history in the making.