It takes a virtuoso performance like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s to win an NBA championship. That much is true.
His 50 points, 50 years after the Milwaukee Bucks last won the NBA championship, was the result of a tone that he set. He also grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and as a 68 per cent free throw shooter this season scored 17 of 19 free throws.
But for every great Finals performance – whether it be Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan or LeBron James – you need role players to step up. These include Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, Ray Allen and many others. As the great role players before them, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, PJ Tucker and Brook Lopez followed Antetokounmpo’s lead.
The top players, the big three – whatever you want to call them – always need to play to their averages to win. If one is slightly below, another needs to step up.
Khris Middleton did not quite hit his scoring average in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, but he hit some huge shots when the Milwaukee Bucks needed a clutch basket. Jrue Holiday struggled to find the bottom of the net at times, but he nearly came away with a triple double, finding 11 team-mates to score, grabbing nine rebounds and stealing the ball four times.
Antetokounmpo made up for their slight scoring dips by himself, but each of them set the tone in their own ways.
Home court advantage
Teams play 82 games (72 games in this year’s shortened regular season) to compete for playoff seeds. The best record gets you an easier ride in the post-season as a top seed faces weaker teams and has the home-court advantage, playing four of their seven games in front of their own crowd.
The regular season is a long stretch but it gives them a chance to develop players outside of the top group. They need to know who can be relied upon when the pressure gets turned up with each round of the playoffs.
In recent years, the Milwaukee Bucks have had the top seed every season, but relied too heavily on a basic system that enhanced the strengths of Giannis Antetokounmpo and failed to raise the floor for others around him. The Greek Freak might have won two regular season MVP awards that way, but if he struggled when their opposition figured out how to slow him down in the simplified offense during the playoffs, so did his team-mates.
This year they upgraded at the point guard position and changed the system. Jrue Holiday helped solidify their big three, so if Khris Middleton had a bad game, someone else could pick up the slack and support Antetokounmpo.
All that is fine for the regular season and even the early rounds of the playoffs, but as you reach the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, someone else needs to do their bit.
Home court is an advantage, especially as role players tend to struggle on the road and excel when a friendly crowd is supporting them when they make mistakes.
The past few seasons the Bucks had the best regular season record, but knowing they were going to have to build in more advanced systems, put a greater workload on their top players and work in new talent, Milwaukee continually said it was not aiming to be the best regular season team – they were working towards something bigger.
Even so, stealing a game in Phoenix in Game 5 gave the Bucks a chance to close out the Finals at home.
In Game 6, you could hear the Milwaukee faithful through the television speakers from this side of the Atlantic, and when Bobby Portis stepped into the game, it felt like most of Wisconsin would have heard the “BOBBY, BOBBY” chants.
For someone who scored eight points per game throughout the playoffs and did not even look like he would play many games due to difficult mismatches, Portis found a role in the latter games of the series against the Phoenix Suns and brought his average up by finishing with 16 points. With six points in the first quarter, and six points in the last quarter, he helped at clutch moments, scoring threes, stepping inside when defenders closed out and even getting to the rack when the defense broke down.
On the other end, he picked up five fouls, which might not always be a good thing, but it made players miss and his physicality was exactly what you expect on a winning side in an NBA Finals series.
Pat Connaughton struggled in this game, but he has had moments as the fourth-best player for the Bucks throughout this series. He had two games in which he scored 14 points, and four games where he grabbed six or more rebounds, including eight in the clincher. Considering he was playing behind Donte Divencenzo before the shooting guard went down injured for the remainder of the series, Connaughton took the opportunity and flourished at times in this series.
Early in the Finals, it looked like Brook Lopez might not be able to play at all, but he finished with 10 points in Game 6, as well as eight rebounds. While PJ Tucker left the scoring up to everyone else, his defense on Chris Paul and Devin Booker was vital, especially when he stole the ball from the latter with four minutes to go in the game.
Getting the job done
Robert Horry, Steve Kerr and Ray Allen hit huge shots to win games in the playoffs during their respective runs towards championships. Their contributions were obvious, but whether it’s hitting a game-winner, or putting the ball in the right position every time like John Paxson, grabbing key rebounds like Rasho Nesterovic, or playing perfect defense like Shane Battier, role players are essential to getting a championship team over the line.
Cam Payne did everything he could to keep the Phoenix Suns in this contest early, but it was a slow start from the rest of the team, and the team’s top players – Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton – struggled to set the tone early like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton did for the Milwaukee Bucks.
While Shaquille O’Neal has handed over the Superman cape to the Greek Freak, the former LA Laker will always say he needed ‘the others’. Game 6 in the 2020-21 NBA Finals will rightly go down as Antetokounmpo’s crowning as the new king of the league, but he would not have got there if the role players did not step up.