It was early in Game 5 on Thursday night — 2 minutes and 5 seconds in, to be exact — and Jrue Holiday, open from 3, caught a wing pass from P.J. Tucker.
With injured Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting on the end of the bench in a cream-colored, long-sleeve T-shirt and gray sweatpants, the Bucks had roared into the game, the energy percolating inside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Holiday’s 3 dropped, giving the Milwaukee Bucks a 10-2 lead and forcing an Atlanta Hawks timeout. It was the inverse of Tuesday’s Game 4 in Atlanta, where without Trae Young, the Hawks jolted to an early 10-2 lead, forcing a Bucks timeout. And like 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 let up.
The construction of the Bucks’ roster has been a work in progress since the team realized what it had in Antetokounmpo. Refining role players and discovering hidden gems to piece together a complementary group, the Bucks have tinkered to find the right fits. In a game in which that group had to find its own offense outside of the two-time MVP, the supporting cast complemented Antetokounmpo by filling his void to win Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals 123-112 and take a 3-2 series lead.
Start with Brook Lopez, who played maybe the game of his life with a playoff-career-high 33 points on 14-of-18 shooting, dominating inside with his towering size and brute strength.
“We have to figure out a way to give ourselves a chance, and Brook getting to the paint, really he’s done it really his whole career,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Credit to him.”
Lopez was a prime beneficiary of that discovery process in 2018 when he signed with the Bucks via their biannual exception, just $3.4 million for a season.
Once upon a time, the No. 10 overall pick of the then New Jersey Nets spent his first nine seasons as a primary option himself, with offenses curated around his skill set and rosters built to fit him. He’s the all-time leading scorer in Nets history, putting together seasons consistently hovering around 20 points a game.
In his first eight seasons with the Nets, he took a total of 31 3-pointers. 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 in need of a restart.
As Brook Lopez throws down the alley-oop, his teammates can’t believe what they just saw.
In his first season with the Bucks, he hit almost 200 3s, becoming a space-creating piece to the puzzle they were trying to solve for Antetokounmpo. It resulted in a fresh $52 million contract from Milwaukee in 2019, and now as a rim-protecting 3-point sharpshooting stretch 5, Lopez’s career has had a renaissance.
“I’m just trying to go out there and help my team however possible. Whether it’s playing that new, modern 3-ball game, floor stretch game, or being inside,” Lopez said. “What was great about today is we were all really just basketball players, on offense and defense. We were playing off one another, making plays, making extra passes. It was a lot of fun tonight.”
Then there’s Holiday, the two-way upgrade for whom the Bucks handed over part of their long-term future to the New Orleans Pelicans. In some ways, he has already fulfilled his value as possibly the precursor to persuade Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year deal to stay with the Bucks.
The Bucks were looking for Holiday to be more reliable and sustain them offensively in dry spells. He has been inconsistent, but as the Bucks press forward, his role as a stopper and scorer is vital. They gave up three first-rounders and two pick swaps to get him, but 25 points and 13 assists in 42 minutes in Game 5 felt worth at least a couple of them.
“I just knew I had to be aggressive. Whatever that means, Giannis being out or not, I knew that I had to be aggressive,” Holiday said. “I feel like the best way that I’m gonna help my team is getting into the paint, penetrating and dishing out for 3s and wide-open looks … dishes to Brook for monster dunks like that.”
Stephen A. Smith discusses the keys for the Hawks heading into Game 6 with their season on the line.
The Bucks signed Bobby Portis last offseason, adding to their options at the 4 with another spacer and scorer. Portis has become a fan favorite, maybe in part due to his very chantable name, or the hyperactive energy and intensity he plays with. He shifted into a role as a part-time small-ball 5, giving Budenholzer the option to uncharacteristically adjust defensive schemes, adding new looks for Young and the Hawks to deal with. Portis has always been a capable scorer, the 22 points in 36 minutes on Thursday an example of how easy it can sometimes come for him.
“Coming here was the best decision of my career,” Portis said. “Having good veterans like Giannis and Brook to coach me up 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 shoot my shot, and having a coach like Coach Bud and the whole coaching staff … it was just a great business decision.”
2021 NBA playoffs will produce a new champion, with the Lakers out. None of the three teams left standing have won a title since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
• Young: Bucks pieces are coming together
• Windhorst: Suns’ unique redemption story
• Arnovitz: Middleton is Bucks’ extra dimension
• Pelton: Bucks can reach Finals without Giannis
• MacMullan: The bond that built the Hawks
And, of course, Middleton, who showcased his closing chops in Game 3 and played with a steady scoring hand in Game 5 with 26 points in 45 minutes. Without Antetokounmpo, he was the obvious option to step up and add to his plate. But Middleton is a focused rhythm player, waiting for his hand to turn hot and the game to open up to him. His story arc as a player is well written, a second-round pick out of Texas A&M unexpectedly becoming Antetokounmpo’s star sidekick — and the Bucks’ shutdown closer.
Anytime a star player is out, every coach and player loves to say it’s not one person who has to elevate, but a collective chip-in to make up for his absence. When a roster is relied upon is where the team is critical.
“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 involved and others. Knowing that the focal point is going to be on me a lot more and Jrue also. Jrue did a great job at setting the tone first. Got himself going, other guys, Brook and Bobby.”
As with the Hawks in Game 4, the story of this series and the postseason is a war of roster attrition. As the Bucks move one win away from the Finals, with or without Antetokounmpo, they’ve shown that, maybe, all the pieces fit.