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The Milwaukee Bucks Are Betting on Déjà Vu


PHILADELPHIA — After Khris Middleton spent his first season in skilled basketball with the Detroit Pistons and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the N.B.A. Development League, he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. On the time, he was merely hoping for regular employment.

A number of weeks later, when Middleton arrived in Milwaukee for training camp before the beginning of the 2013-14 season, he was not the one fresh face. He was joined by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a precocious draft pick who proudly professed his love for fruit smoothies and was similarly awe-struck to be within the presence of veteran teammates like Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo and Zaza Pachulia.

“They were basketball gods to us on the time,” Middleton said, “simply because they’d been so successful within the league for thus a few years and we were attempting to learn every thing we could from them.”

Even then, Middleton was savvy enough to know that it could take time to construct winning habits. Milwaukee went 15-67 that season to complete with the worst record within the league while rating last in home attendance. The Bucks weren’t a product that many individuals desired to buy.

“It wasn’t going to be an overnight success story,” Middleton said. “We settled in for the long haul.”

On Thursday night, because the Bucks christened their recent season with a 90-88 win over the 76ers, their days of hard-won habit-building were the stuff of ragged memories. Milwaukee has made six straight playoff appearances, winning a championship in 2021, and figure to be in the combination to win all of it again this season.

It helps that Antetokounmpo is probably the greatest players on the planet. After a busy summer that included the discharge of “Rise,” a Disney+ biopic about his life, and a run within the EuroBasket tournament with Greece’s national team, Antetokounmpo crammed 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists into 36 minutes against the 76ers.

“They know how one can play with their star,” Sixers Coach Doc Rivers said.

But that only comes with continuity, patience and stability — concepts which might be increasingly foreign in pro sports.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been with the Bucks for the reason that dark ages. Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton, two other members of the team’s core, got here to Milwaukee before the beginning of the 2018-19 season, which was also Mike Budenholzer’s first season as coach. And 14 of the 17 players on the present roster were with the team last season. One in every of them, Wesley Matthews, made the go-ahead 3-pointer against Philadelphia.

“I believe it helps us to begin the season when other teams have recent players, recent additions, recent coaching staff — all those sorts of changes,” Matthews said. “For probably the most part, we’re the identical team. So being in moments like this, we’ve been there before.”

Now in his fifteenth season, Lopez has played for teams where it took time “to figure stuff out,” he said. Where players needed weeks, and even months, to feel comfortable in recent systems. Where training camps included exercises designed to reinforce chemistry.

“They’re good things, and that’s why people do them,” Lopez said. “But we don’t necessarily have to make people do team bonding or anything like that. It’s very natural around here. Now we have people hanging out, having fun with one another’s company, and we’re all glad to be an element of this.”

Not that the Bucks have been resistant to disappointment. In 2018-19, that they had the league’s best regular-season record, then lost to the Toronto Raptors within the Eastern Conference finals. It was more of the identical the next season: best record, early exit (this time to the Miami Heat within the conference semifinals).

“We were dissatisfied in ourselves,” Lopez said. “We knew we had more to offer and more to attain as a gaggle. We knew we may very well be higher.”

After a period of uncertainty for the team and collective anxiety for the Milwaukee area, Budenholzer returned as coach, the Bucks bolstered their backcourt by trading for Jrue Holiday, and Antetokounmpo agreed to a mammoth contract extension. Several months later, the Bucks were N.B.A. champions for the primary time since 1971.

“The indisputable fact that the franchise stuck with us and kept the team together shows that they believed in what they were attempting to construct,” Middleton said. “And all of us desired to stay and get the job done.”

The Bucks have that feeling again after losing to the Boston Celtics within the conference semifinals last season. It hardly helped that Middleton missed the series with a knee injury. They usually usually are not yet whole this season, either: Middleton is rehabilitating from wrist surgery, and Connaughton has a strained calf.

Still, the Bucks have their foundation in place.

“We’re not talking about our basic defensive or offensive principles,” Connaughton said. “Everybody already knows them. As a substitute, we’re talking about how one can improve.”

This can be a critical season for Milwaukee. Lopez is in the ultimate season of a four-year deal, and Middleton, who signed a five-year contract with the Bucks in 2019, has a player option for next season. Their futures are uncertain. But nothing lasts endlessly, and the Bucks wish to capitalize while they’ll. It has taken a protracted time for them to achieve this stage, to have a lot familiarity with each other.

“It’s rare,” Middleton said. “It’s definitely rare.”

On Thursday morning, because the team wrapped up a pregame workout, Middleton was accosted by Joe Ingles, certainly one of the team’s newcomers. After edging Middleton in a friendly shooting competition, Ingles desired to be certain that everyone knew it: “We’ve got 81 more games, and it’s 1-0 to Joe.” Middleton shook his head and laughed.

“This,” he said, “is certainly one of the explanations I wish we didn’t make any changes.”

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