New faces will try to win their first title while defending the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship
One of the strengths of the Milwaukee Bucks as they enter the 2021-22 postseason tournament is that they return four of their five starters from Game 6 of the NBA Finals victory over the Phoenix Suns, and the two top bench options in Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, too.
The Bucks no doubt hope continuity will be king.
But not everything remains the same.
The new fifth starter for much of the season was guard Grayson Allen, acquired via trade at the start of the year and signed to a contract extension in mid-October. But in the home stretch of the regular season, veteran Wesley Matthews took over that spot for an added defensive presence.
Instead of Jeff Teague, who played a key role in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the team brought back George Hill to fill the veteran, backup point guard position.
Hill played in the 2018 NBA Finals with Cleveland, which was swept by Golden State. He’s also been a part of Eastern Conference finals trips with Indiana (2013 and 2014) and Milwaukee (2019). Allen and Matthews have yet to make such a deep run.
“I think pressure is you want it, what it feels like, you can get that monkey off your back,” Hill said. “Then at the same time you can have the pressure of wanting to do it again. A lot of us want to feel that feeling that the guys felt last year.
“I think that pressure is on us where we want to complete that mission. Hopefully we can go in with our shoulder relaxed a little bit and just play good playoff basketball. That’s what our goal is.”
When asked if the 35-year-old Matthews and Hill and the 26-year-old Allen had brought anything different to the team in terms of added focus or hunger for a title to complement the returning core, Giannis Antetokounmpo acknowledged that trio had a good sense of the process needed to win one.
“Hopefully we can win another one and they can be a part,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I think they already feel a part of a championship team. Because whenever we step on the court they say the world champs, you know?
“So, they’re a part of that. We’ve got to defend that, so they’re defending it with us. But there’s steps we’ve gotta do. We’ve got to build good habits. There’s steps we gotta do in order for us to get another one.”
Upon hearing that, Allen grinned.
“Yeah … I’m definitely not a champion,” he said. “So I’m not going to say that. But we’re a collective group and they don’t want to make a difference between the core that’s still the defending champions, that’s still the same team with a few extra pieces in. They’re doing a great job making us feel together and feel together as a group where it’s not them trying to defend.”
The shooting guard has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs in two previous trips to the postseason but was a key part of an NCAA championship team at Duke in 2015. Could any of that experience help him as the Bucks begin this run?
“Maybe the whole of the pressure of the game could be similar, but the one thing that’s different – and it’s the biggest thing about playing the NBA playoffs – is you play the same team over and over and over again,” Allen told the Journal Sentinel. “So, that first game is like the title game. And then next game it’s a level up and then the next game is another level up, so it just makes it trickier because that competitiveness is still there and you know the other team and you just saw them yesterday or two days ago. So there’s definitely a few more levels up when it comes to the playoffs.”
With the title defense beginning Sunday against Chicago in the first round, the Bucks will no doubt lean on their six returning players. But at this point last season, none of them had championship experience. And at some point, nearly every person in the top 10 of the rotation played a key role in getting the Bucks to the Finals.
Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo, Portis and Connaughton may have been there and done that already – but the door is now open for Matthews, Hill and Allen to make their mark. Which is a door the core group unlocked for them upon arrival.
They wanted all the new players to feel a part of a championship team so when it came time to win another they wouldn’t be caught up in the moment.
“This group collectively as a team – there’s nothing that we can face in the playoffs where it’s like, ‘we haven’t been here before’ but me as a fourth-year player who has only made it to the first round, I haven’t been there before,” Allen said. “But that’s where you’re just looking to others where you follow their lead, follow their mindset, follow what they’re doing and you’ll be in the right spot. That’s an important distinction there, important words to say.”