It was early in Game 5 on Thursday night, 2 minutes and 5 seconds of play, to be exact, and Jrue Holiday, wide open from the area of 3, caught a side pass from PJ Tucker.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo injured and sitting on the end of the bench in a cream long-sleeved top and gray sweatpants, the Bucks entered the game like wild beasts, energy seeping into the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Holiday’s 3-pointer was good, giving the Milwaukee Bucks a 10-2 lead and forcing a time out of the Atlanta Hawks. It was the opposite of Tuesday’s Game 4 at Atlanta, where without Trae Young, the Hawks took an early 10-2 lead, forcing a time out of the Bucks. And as the Hawks did then, riding the wave of an inspired roster determined to answer the call of duty to bear the burden of an absent star, the Bucks never relented.
Building the Bucks roster has been a work in progress since the team realized what it had in Antetokounmpo. Refining the RPGs and uncovering hidden gems to put together a complementary group, the Bucks have done little tweaks to find the right settings. In a game where that group had to find their own offense without the two-time MVP, the supporting cast complimented Antetokounmpo by filling their void to win Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals 123-112 and take a lead. 3-2 in the series.
Let’s start with Brook Lopez, who played perhaps the game of his life with a career-high 33 points in the playoffs, on 14 of 18 shooting, dominating the interior with his massive size and raw strength.
“We have to find a way to give ourselves a chance, and Brook getting to the paint, he really has done it his entire career,” said coach Mike Budenholzer. “Credit to him.”
Lopez was one of the main beneficiaries of that discovery process in 2018 when he signed with the Bucks through his biennial waiver, just $ 3.4 million per season.
Once upon a time, the No. 10 overall pick of the then New Jersey Nets spent his first nine seasons as a top pick, with offenses organized around his skill set and rosters built to suit him. He is the all-time leading scorer for the Nets, adding seasons that consistently hovered around 20 points per game.
In his first eight seasons with the Nets, he made a total of 31 3-pointers. In his ninth season, he took 387, then was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the move that sent D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn. He was on a lottery-bound Lakers team that was largely a dysfunctional mess and needed a reboot.
In his first season with the Bucks, he hit nearly 200 3s, making him a space-creating piece for the puzzle they were trying to solve for Antetokounmpo. It resulted in a new $ 52 million contract from Milwaukee in 2019, and now as a 5 rim-guarding three-point sniper, Lopez’s career has seen a revival.
“I’m just trying to get out there and help my team as much as possible. Whether it’s playing that new modern 3-point game, stretching the space or in the paint inside,” Lopez said. “The good thing about today is that we were all really just basketball players, both on offense and defense. We were playing with each other, making plays, making extra passes. It was a lot of fun tonight.”
Then there’s Holiday, the two-way point guard for whom the Bucks handed over some of their long-term future to the New Orleans Pelicans. In a way, he already served his courage as possibly the precursor to persuading Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year contract to stay with the Bucks.
The Bucks were looking to make Holiday more reliable and keep them on offensive pace in dry spells. It has been inconsistent, but as the Bucks move forward, his role as a defender and scorer is vital. They gave up three first-round players and two picks to get it, but 25 points and 13 assists in 42 minutes in Game 5 were worth at least a couple of them.
“I just knew he had to be aggressive. Whatever that meant, Giannis is out or not, he knew he had to be aggressive,” Holiday said. “I feel like the best way I’m going to help my team is by getting in the paint, penetrating and delivering 3s and wide stares … assists Brook for monster dunks.”
The Bucks signed Bobby Portis last offseason, adding to their options at 4 with another spacer and scorer. Portis has become a fan favorite, perhaps in part because of his singable name, or the hyperactive energy and intensity with which he plays. He shifted to a role as a part-time small-ball 5 player, giving Budenholzer the option of adjusting defensive schemes in unusual ways, adding new looks for facing Young and the Hawks. Portis has always been a capable scorer, the 22 points in 36 minutes on Thursday is an example of how easy it can be for him at times.
“Coming here was the best decision of my career,” Portis said. “Having good veterans like Giannis and Brook to train me on how to be a two-way player on the defensive end and guys like Khris [Middleton] and Jrue to put the ball in the hole and still trust me to fire my shot, and to have a coach like Coach Bud and the whole coaching staff … it was a great business decision. “
And of course Middleton, who showed his finishing skills in Game 3 and played a steady hand in Game 5 with 26 points in 45 minutes. Without Antetokounmpo, he was the obvious choice to step up and add to his plate. But Middleton is a focused pacing player, waiting for his hand to warm up and the game to open up for him. His playing history is well written, a Texas A&M second-round pick who unexpectedly became Antetokounmpo’s star teammate, and the Bucks’ closer in the clutch.
Every time a star player is out, all the coaches and players love to say that it is not a person who has to grow, but a collective contribution to make up for their absence. When you trust a squad, the team factor is essential.
“A lot of people expect me to do that,” Middleton said of taking over without Giannis. “For me, it’s just playing within the game, just trying to get myself and others involved. Knowing that the focal point is going to be much more in me and Jrue as well. Jrue did a great job setting the tone first. warmed up and then found others, Brook and Bobby. “
As with the Hawks in Game 4, the history of this series and the postseason is a war of attrition of the roster. As the Bucks move into a Finals win, with or without Antetokounmpo, they’ve shown that perhaps all the pieces fit together.