Opinion: Bucks' character, resiliency has them one win from an NBA title vs. Suns

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PHOENIX – The Brooklyn Nets stomped the Milwaukee Bucks by 39 points for a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“We got smacked, embarrassed,” Bucks guard Khris Middleton said. “A lot of people thought our season was done.”

Sure looked like the Bucks were headed for another disappointing playoff exit.

Milwaukee lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at home against the Atlanta Hawks and then lost star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (hyperextended left knee) for the final two games of a 2-2 series.

In both series, the Bucks found a way to win, beating Brooklyn in a Game 7 thriller on the road and winning two consecutive games against the Hawks without Antetokounmpo.

“It's a good group,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “High character. I think there's a ton of talent. The roster is versatile. There's a physicality. It's just a really good team. Good team with good character. Credit to them. They've been able to respond and be resilient. It's a big part of who we are.”

Milwaukee Bucks players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton celebrate after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 5.
Milwaukee Bucks players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton celebrate after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 5.

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That character, that resiliency have put the Bucks on the threshold of the franchise’s first championship since 1971.

Down 2-0 after the start of the NBA Finals in Phoenix, the Bucks have won three consecutive games and can close out the series in Game 6 on Tuesday in Milwaukee (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

“We're competitors,” reserve guard Pat Connaughton said. “We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe. We have a resilient group in that locker room. We have a group that has been through a lot. We have been through adversity this year, and the one thing that's remained consistent is we've fought through it together. We've had each other's backs. We've looked at each other in the locker room and fought for the guy sitting next to you and the guy sitting on the other side of you.”

Teams that have lost the first two games of the NBA Finals are 4-31. The Bucks are trying to become the fifth team to win, and they’re playing like a team capable of doing it.

The Bucks’ past failures have hardened this team and made it stronger and more able to handle the rigors of postseason hardships.

“I feel like we don't stop,” Antetokounmpo said late Saturday night after dealing with cramps from giving all that he had. “I've been a part of different teams. Usually when you're down 15 or 16 or whatever, down 0-2 or whatever the case might be, you kind of stop competing in a way.

“But I feel like this team, we don't do that. We haven't done that all year long. I can't remember, I can't go that far back, but we keep competing.”

Within these big-picture examples are molecular examples — winning plays that lead to victories.

In their 123-119 victory against Phoenix in Game 5 on Saturday, the Bucks overcame a 37-21 first-quarter deficit on the road. In the final minute with a one-point Bucks lead, Jrue Holiday stole the ball from Phoenix’s Devin Booker, who had his offense going and was setting up to take one of his tough-to-stop mid-range jumpers.

In the two closest, heart-thumping contests of the Finals — Games 4 and 5 — Milwaukee maintained focus and made winning plays - key Holiday rebound, steal and pass here, a Middleton jumper there and of course an Antetokounmpo dunk and block punctuating the victory.

It’s been a team effort — Connaughton 3s, P.J. Tucker rebounds, Bobby Portis Jr. hustle and Brook Lopez contributing in uncertain minutes depending on matchups.

Remember those Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls teams of the 1980s? It took multiple playoff losses before they won championships. The Pistons had trouble beating the Boston Celtics and when they finally beat Boston, they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. They came back the next year and defeated the Lakers and won a second consecutive title against Portland.

Michael Jordan’s Bulls struggled to get past the Pistons and when they finally broke through, it was championship after championship.

Lessons were learned. The heartbreak was necessary to build the resolve required to win the Finals.

“Every team has a different journey,” Budenholzer said. “Players have different journeys. So I certainly feel like what we've been through this playoffs. Every team that advances, you feel like you're better because of the competition you just went through.

“And what we have been through the last couple two, three years, it's prepared us to be in this moment and play and execute both ends of the court. So I think it's just part of our journey, and we've still got a ways to go.”

For some teams, it’s a step-by-step process with progress and setbacks.

Are the Bucks about to bust through to the other side?

“Even if we're down 0-2, we're down 0-1, we're down 16 points, we keep coming, we keep competing, because we know the game is long,” said Antetokounmpo, the favorite for Finals MVP. “It’s 48 minutes, and we always try to put ourselves in a position to win the game. That's all you can ask for.

“You go into a game, you don't know if you're going to win the game but you know if we compete for 48 minutes, we are good. We have great players, great closers, great shooters, great rebounders, great defenders, have a great coach and we know that we can put ourselves in a position to win the game.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bucks show resiliency again in NBA Finals against Suns