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Bobby Portis goes from DNPs to unlikely starter as Bucks one win from NBA Finals

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Stars keep dropping as the playoffs grind on, and opportunities keep popping up for understudies because games need to be won and players win them.

Bobby Portis isn’t a star, not in a traditional sense, and neither is Brook Lopez. But Fiserv Forum popped on command from Portis, and Lopez’s long-armed shocking alley-oop dunks sent Milwaukee’s arena into a frenzy — another main character in the Bucks moving to within one game of joining the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Atlanta Hawks were without wunderkind Trae Young — giving the perception that both teams were evenly matched.

But the Bucks certainly look like the better team and will likely represent the East in the next round, even if it takes the full seven games to do it.

Hardened by heartbreak and toughened by new acquisitions like Portis, they overwhelmed the Hawks early and held them off late for a 123-112 Game 5 win. Portis slid into the starting spot vacated by Antetokounmpo to score 22 and grab eight rebounds while Lopez took the two-time MVP’s spot in the paint, towering, finishing and giving the appearance the three best and healthiest players are on the team up 3-2. Lopez morphed into a different version of himself, the scorer, and tallied 33 points and seven rebounds.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis (9) reacts to a play during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during game five of the Eastern Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis got the start in Game 5. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Portis, though, seemed to bring the juice and electricity, a mix of unbridled joy and grit that has earned the admiration of the Milwaukee faithful. His eyes shoot darts and he matches them with soft jumpers or runaway train fast-break dunks accompanied by chants of “Bobby, Bobby” from a crowd that has latched onto him in his first season in Milwaukee.

Antetokounmpo left a big absence and while so many Bucks stepped up, there was enough space for everyone to eat without forcing the action. Jrue Holiday asserted himself early, Khris Middleton calmly played within himself, and the two big guys did big boy things that would make Antwan Patton jealous.

“I’m prepared to do whatever’s asked of me but it’s just a matter of everybody stepping up,” Lopez said. “And no one person is going to replace that. And I think everyone showed that they're capable of doing that.”

And it could very well be the way the Bucks have to continue if the franchise takes a conservative approach with Antetokounmpo’s hyperextended knee.

More opportunity for Portis to slide his way into Milwaukee’s heart.

“The city goes through a lot, so when they see somebody who gives his all and works hard … this is a blue-collar city, and I’m a blue-collar player,” Portis said. “Whether I’m making shots or not, I’m still giving 100 percent for the name on the front of the jersey.”

Had Kevin Durant’s foot been positioned slightly differently in that classic Game 7 a couple weeks back, Portis’ season would’ve ended on the sidelines with more DNP’s than impactful plays after he sat the last three games of the Brooklyn Nets series. He would’ve entered the offseason with the taste of inactivity and who knows, probably an uncertain future after making a solid name for himself.

But being unleashed has produced more urgency for a player who already has it in spades. The toughness has helped transform the Bucks from a team that’s a little too nice to one with a shot of attitude.

Portis isn’t overly athletic, but he’s usually more active than the guy standing across him, and he barks, in an old-school irritant way to get in that guy’s head. He’s done amazing work on his body the past couple years, shedding weight and developing dexterity to help him finish better and use his physicality.

His passion is palpable, and when he praised Middleton after his extraordinary Game 3 performance, saying “you can’t measure heart,” he very well could have been talking about himself, too.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve, you can see it every night,” Middleton said. “It’s crazy, he didn’t play much in the Brooklyn series. He was disappointed. But he didn’t complain about it, he stays locked in to stay ready. He's had a huge impact in this series so far. That just shows you the character guy he is and what he’s all about. He’s all about winning.”

In his first few seasons, Portis’ character was in question although the reputation part of it seems largely overplayed. Portis alluded to trials in his career, when he got into an altercation with former teammate Nikola Mirotic when both were members of the Chicago Bulls.

Mirotic had a broken face after a Portis punch and he had to endure all the labels that come from being a young, Black player in the NBA.

Days after, Portis stood and addressed the media with accountability and remorse, hoping it wasn’t the first line on his basketball bio. When Mirotic returned, the two played well together, proving Portis took the moment as a lesson learned — harsh as it may seem.

Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks blocks a  during the second half in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 01, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Bucks center Brook Lopez scored a game-high 33 points. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

“The journey makes it sweet, you can’t put a tag on that,” Portis said. “Coming here was the best decision of my career.”

He was sincere during that time and even in the years after, through stints in Washington and New York — franchises that were more weigh stations than contenders.

Coming to Milwaukee on a below-market deal was a piece in general manager Jon Horst and assistant GM Milt Newton’s master plan: building a team that could morph at a moment’s notice and be what the night called for. Even if Mike Budenholzer would be slow to make alterations, it wouldn’t be because he didn’t have the tools at his disposal.

“That's a great credit to him. The maturity ... and there's a mental toughness,” Budenholzer said. “You want to help your team, to stay ready to understand every series is a little bit different. He's still got great energy and he's there for us.”

The Bucks got punched in the mouth, physically and emotionally in Game 4, and were reeling after Antetokounmpo’s shocking knee injury.

So when you need to punch back, yes, Portis is well-equipped to deliver. He joined fellow new addition Jrue Holiday and this version of Lopez to send the Hawks back reeling to Atlanta for Game 6 on Saturday.

Milwaukee's toughness has been tested these past two months, after being forged the last couple years.

We know of at least one player whose toughness will travel.

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