How the Milwaukee Bucks finally constructed a title contender — nearly a decade in the making

  • NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
  • Former contributor and editor at NPR

LESS THAN ONE year after the Miami Heat bounced the Milwaukee Bucks from the 2020 postseason, the Bucks had a chance to avoid a second meeting in the 2021 playoffs. Hosting Miami on the last weekend of the season, the Bucks could’ve rested their best players and given the Heat a free pass to move up in the standings — and likely drawn a matchup with either New York or Atlanta.

As the Bucks mulled over their options, countless conversations were shared, from the locker room to ownership and the front office. Khris Middleton, who’d gone through the bubble experience and seen a physical Heat team handle the Bucks, was well aware of Miami’s toughness and experience. Facing them was a noble challenge — but it would be a challenge. Jrue Holiday came to the Heat conversation with a fresh set of eyes. Unscarred by the bubble, he had scored 24 points in an early-season 47-point blowout of Miami, and thought the Heat eminently beatable. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, wanted payback.

Quickly, a resounding consensus emerged — there was absolutely no way they’d duck the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

This wasn’t a matter of public perception, but of collective honor. The Bucks had been the best team in the NBA over the past three seasons, and no serious contender with any self-respect engages in seeding gymnastics to circumvent any opponent.

While they’re trying to exorcise their demons from postseasons past, this Bucks team is different — in personnel, strategies and temperament. Yet like every team that reaches the pinnacle of the NBA Finals, their playoff run is informed by moments, events and decisions that occurred months and years before.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton arrived in 2013, the ownership group came in 2014, the current front-office leadership assumed its post in 2017, the head coach took over in 2018, and veterans Holiday and P.J. Tucker just months ago. Over that time, the Bucks have amassed signature wins and devastating losses. They’ve cracked codes and misplaced others. They’ve traded away key contributors and acquired missing pieces.

Here are nine consequential moments that define a Bucks Finals team almost a decade in the making.

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