Just three months after Giannis Antetokoumpo’s 50-point performance secured a title-clinching victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks will start their title defense when the new season begins on Oct. 19.
The offseason was particularly brief for Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who left for Tokyo shortly after the championship parade and won gold medals with the U.S. Olympic team.
“It was crazy,” Holiday said.
They got just a little time to come home and rest before beginning the process of trying to repeat. They realize the necessity of maintaining the same tenacity that helped carry them to the franchise’s first championship since 1971.
The Bucks open the season against the Brooklyn Nets, who would have eliminated them in the second round of the 2021 playoffs if Kevin Durant’s foot hadn’t crept across the 3-point arc while making a shot in Game 7.
“It’s a challenge,” Middleton said. “I think we have to find a way to stay hungry, not be satisfied by what we accomplished last year, to find a way to do it again.”
Throughout their championship run, the Bucks were driven by their past postseason failures. The Bucks no longer have that as incentive but say they’ll remain as motivated as ever.
“Teams are going to be coming for us,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we have to have that hunter mentality ourselves.”
Milwaukee returned most of the key players from last season, though P.J. Tucker left for the Miami Heat and Bryn Forbes rejoined the San Antonio Spurs. They added Grayson Allen, Semi Ojeleye and George Hill to their bench.
That depth could be tested.
The Bucks may need to monitor their top players early in the season because they had so little rest during this abbreviated offseason.
Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his left knee in the Eastern Conference finals, says he feels good but will be careful with his knee early in the season. The Bucks also must make sure they don’t overwork Holiday and Middleton after their busy offseason.
“They’re usually pretty good at being able to read guys and their bodies,” Holiday said. “Not only that, they’re good at maintenance and maintaining.”
Milwaukee hopes preaching caution early leads to another memorable finish.
“It was a storybook ending for us, right?” guard Pat Connaughton said. “But stories have sequels. Stories have trilogies. At the end of the day, it’s about continuing the next story, continuing the next book.”
The Bucks are coming off a season in which they scored 120.1 points per game. That made them the NBA’s highest-scoring team since 1983-84, when the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs both exceeded that average.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer knows the demands involved in trying to win a second straight NBA title. Budenholzer was part of four NBA championship teams with San Antonio while working as an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff from 1996-2013. Those Spurs teams never won back-to-back titles.
“You acknowledge that, yes, it is different,” Budenholzer said. “There are going to be things that are a little bit unique following a championship. But there’s going to be a lot of things that are very much the same – the competitive nature of the league, the way people are going to come after you. I think our players always embrace that competition and the need to kind of raise to that level.”
This season marks Hill’s second stint in Milwaukee. He played for the Bucks from 2018-20 and provided quality 3-point shooting off the bench before getting included in the four-team trade that brought Holiday to Milwaukee.
“They had to make that trade to get a guy like Jrue, which is a no-brainer in every situation,” Hill said. “He’s the best point guard in the league in many people’s eyes. There’s no hard feelings.”
Hill also was one of the leaders of the Bucks’ 2020 protest in the bubble that led to a temporary postponement of NBA playoff games.
The Bucks are banking on a successful return from Donte DiVincenzo, who tore a left ankle ligament in a first-round playoff series with Miami and missed the rest of the postseason. DiVincenzo started 66 games and averaged 10.4 points last season. The Bucks haven't announced when they expect DiVincenzo to play again.
Allen, meanwhile, didn’t exactly get a warm reception from local fans when the Bucks acquired him from Memphis during the offseason. They remember how Allen ruined Wisconsin’s national championship dreams by scoring 16 points as Duke beat the Badgers 68-63 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament final.
“When I was first traded, 30 minutes later, I would say about 80% of my mentions were angry Wisconsin fans not happy I was coming to Milwaukee,” Allen said.
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