MILWAUKEE — A half-century ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a young goliath then known as Lew Alcindor — led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship. For decades, it was the only time the franchise had reached that height.
That is, until now.
On Tuesday night, the Bucks capped off their return to greatness. They are once again led by a behemoth with unique skill, this one a 26-year-old player from Greece nicknamed the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. On its home court, Milwaukee defeated the Phoenix Suns, 105-98, in Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals to win its second championship and complete a grueling N.B.A. season of injuries and coronavirus pandemic disruptions.
“This should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world to believe in their dreams,” a jubilant Antetokounmpo, who is also of Nigerian descent, said after the game. He added: “I hope I give people around the world from Africa, from Europe, give them hope that it can be done. Eight and a half years ago, before I came into the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street.”
Antetokounmpo turned in one of the greatest performances in N.B.A. finals history, scoring 50 points — a playoff career high — and adding 14 rebounds. As he has for most of his career, Antetokounmpo bulled his way to the basket using an array of spin moves and brute force. Even from the free-throw line, where he has struggled, he was nearly perfect, going 17 for 19. He was also a force on the defensive end, blocking five shots. By the time the final buzzer sounded, there was no doubt who would be named the most valuable player of the series.
“Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t be or what you cannot do,” Antetokounmpo said. “People told me I can’t make free throws. I made my free throws tonight. And I’m a freaking champion.”
The Suns kept the decisive game competitive in the second half. Chris Paul, Phoenix’s 36-year-old point guard, finished with 26 points. Devin Booker, the scoring dynamo for the Suns, struggled, scoring 19 points on 22 shots. For Paul, the loss was particularly gutting, as a perennial All-Star in his 16th season still searching for his elusive championship.
“It’s tough,” Paul said. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
Bobby Portis, a reserve forward for Milwaukee and a fan favorite known for his demonstrative exhortations, had 16 points off the bench. The crowd chanted his name every time he scored.
The championship was the peak of a remarkable rise for Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. He entered the N.B.A. as a rail-thin prospect, drafted outside of the top 14 picks, a grouping known as the lottery that is seen as a signifier of impending stardom. He has since established himself as one of the best players in Bucks history.
In his eighth season, the championship fills the last glaring hole on a résumé that includes five All-Star selections and a Defensive Player of the Year Award. Top stars are often judged by the number of championship rings they have and how they won them. Antetokounmpo won his title with the franchise that drafted him, in an N.B.A. era when the best players are often on the move.
In the previous two seasons, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and were eliminated in the playoffs before the finals, raising questions about whether Antetokounmpo could be the one to truly elevate the team. Opponents exploited his below-average shooting ability.
Entering this season, there were murmurs that he might leave the Bucks in free agency. Instead, Antetokounmpo bet on Milwaukee in December by signing a so-called super max extension worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. He then delivered a dominant playoff run, putting to rest any doubts about his superstar status.
“This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us,” Antetokounmpo said. “Even when we lost the series, they were on our side. Obviously, I wanted to get the job done.”
Antetokounmpo then spoke about the “easy” decision by some N.B.A. stars to leave in free agency or ask for trades so that they could team up with other stars.
“I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship,” he said, adding, “But this is the hard way to do it.”
He pounded the table for emphasis.
It helped that Milwaukee gambled and traded for Jrue Holiday, a well-regarded, versatile player without the pedigree of perennial All-Star appearances. The Bucks sent a package to New Orleans typically reserved for a bona fide star, including multiple veterans and several draft picks. The gamble paid off: Holiday provided Antetokounmpo with strong help on both sides of the ball when the Bucks needed it most, particularly with a 27-point, 13-assist performance in Game 5.
During the regular season, the Bucks finished third in the East, behind the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers. Milwaukee was aided in part by the health of its key players, who largely avoided major injuries and coronavirus infections. In March, the Bucks traded with Houston to acquire P.J. Tucker, an experienced forward with a reputation as a tough defender and reliable shooter.
Milwaukee’s playoff run seemed on the verge of collapse on several occasions. Once again, Coach Mike Budenholzer, in his third season with the Bucks, came under withering scrutiny about his struggles to make adjustments against strong defenses or to come up with more creative ways to use Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton, a two-time All-Star, once again faced questions about whether he was a good enough deputy to Antetokounmpo, given his inconsistent shooting in the postseason.
“It’s hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does,” Budenholzer said, adding, “He’s off the charts.”
In the semifinal round, the Bucks faced the Nets, who were led by the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Milwaukee lost the first two games of the series, including a 39-point blowout in Game 2. But the Nets were hobbled by injuries to Irving and Harden, and Antetokounmpo turned in star performances of his own to extend the series to seven games. In the final game, a jump shot by Durant at the end of regulation came within a centimeter of ending the Bucks’ season: His toe was on the 3-point line, making the shot worth only a game-tying 2 points and not a game-winning 3. Instead, with Antetokounmpo’s 40 points and 13 rebounds, the Bucks took the series-deciding game in overtime in Brooklyn.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the upstart Atlanta Hawks, with the series tied at two games each, Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly and fell to the ground holding his left knee, raising fears that he would be the latest in a string of N.B.A. stars to miss time because of a serious injury. With his return date uncertain, the Bucks relied on Holiday and Middleton to win Games 5 and 6 and send Milwaukee to its first N.B.A. finals since 1974.
Antetokounmpo’s injury turned out to be only a hyperextension, allowing him to return for the championship round. In the finals, the Suns won the first two games at home, marking the third straight series in which the Bucks faced a deficit. Antetokounmpo’s 41 points during Game 3 in Milwaukee helped to turn the tide as the Bucks won, 120-100.
In Game 4, the Bucks came back from 9 points down in the fourth quarter and evened the series behind Middleton’s 40 points. But that game will be remembered most for Antetokounmpo’s late-game block on Suns center Deandre Ayton, one of the most significant defensive plays in N.B.A. finals history.
With momentum firmly at their backs, the Bucks went back to Phoenix and put the Suns on the brink in Game 5, highlighted by an alley-oop to Antetokounmpo from Holiday at the end of the game. Entering Game 6, Antetokounmpo was averaging 32.2 points, 13 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in the finals.
After the buzzer on Tuesday, an emotional Antetokounmpo embraced the former Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who played in the N.B.A. from 2009 to 2018 and was briefly Antetokounmpo’s teammate. It was Jennings who once famously predicted with gusto that Milwaukee would defeat the more-talented Miami Heat in six games in a 2013 playoff series. The wildly inaccurate prediction has become a rallying cry for Milwaukee’s fan base and made Jennings a sort of cult hero.
Fans chanted, “Bucks in six!” throughout the series. Those chants were deafening after the game, as the audience was elated that Jennings’s prophecy had, in some way, finally come true.