Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

 

What stands out most about the Milwaukee Bucks during a dominant playoff run that has put them eight victories away from the NBA title?

It is their star power? Their bench? Their defense? Their resiliency? Their consistency?

No, it's their chemistry.

Building a positive chemistry in the locker room and on the floor is something every NBA team aspires to but few accomplish. It's hard enough just to define chemistry in sports and it's even harder to achieve it, but the Bucks nailed it this season.

Maybe it's because the team has been winning consistently since October or because the players bonded while trying to prove their hard-to-convince national critics wrong or because the 15 players assembled by general manager Jon Horst and coached by Mike Budenholzer are like-minded winners who just clicked. Whatever the reason, the Bucks have forged an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality that is rare in the I'm-going-to-get-mine NBA.

"This team is really special," forward Nikola Mirotic said. "The way they are playing, the way they are competing, it's like a big family. Everybody's sticking together. There's a great atmosphere in the locker room."

That family atmosphere has been a key component in Milwaukee's league-best, 60-22, regular-season record and 8-1 mark in the playoffs. The vibe that emanates from the Bucks is personal agendas have been set aside for the good of the team, that winning trumps all.

You see it time and again as you watch a team that clearly is having fun. Assists are celebrated as much as points. There are no sideways glances or freezing out players who miss several 3-point shots in a row, even if the shots are questionable.

There is an uncommon accountability on defense. The communication among the players and between the players and coaches is friendly and frank at the same time.

"We have a team that's so close," guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "Our chemistry off the floor ... we actually enjoy being around each other. We enjoy playing with each other. That really is reflected on how many wins we've gathered this season and how the team is continuing to progress."

The Bucks' chemistry is noteworthy because it isn't a given. It never is in the NBA, where rosters consist of 15 players with 15 different - and often competing - agendas.

Any number of things that historically divide locker rooms could have impacted the Bucks this season.

The attention Giannis Antetokounmpo drew while emerging as an NBA superstar could have rubbed people the wrong way. Khris Middleton, set to become a free agent after the season, was chafing early on when the new offense installed by Budenholzer all but eliminated his bread-and-butter midrange game. The four-year, $70 million contract extension signed by Eric Bledsoe in March could have spawned jealousy, especially since Middleton wasn't re-upped. And adding accomplished veterans such as George Hill in December and Mirotic in February could have upset the delicate balance.

Instead, none of that happened. The happy-go-lucky Antetokounmpo remains unselfish on the court and unaffected by fame off it. All he wants to do is win. Budenholzer and Middleton butted heads in December, then put their heads together and met somewhere in the middle, which helped Middleton reach his first All-Star Game. Bledsoe, always talented, became a more team-oriented player this season and the newcomers have blended in seamlessly, with Hill and Mirotic playing major roles in the playoffs.

It is fair to ask which came first for the Bucks, the chicken or the egg. Did winning foster good chemistry or did good chemistry foster winning?

"I think the chemistry that this group has has been cooking in the oven really since the summer," said Budenholzer, citing the players' penchant for getting together for non-mandatory workouts and open gyms throughout the offseason. "All of that was happening before there was a single win. And you could see it and feel it at that time, in that phase. To be honest with you, the day I got here, (I saw that) this is a group that likes each other, that gets along. I think there's a respect for each other, an understanding of each other that's in a really good place."

Keep in mind Budenholzer knows good chemistry when he sees it, having been an assistant coach on four NBA championship teams in San Antonio and the head coach of a 60-win team in Atlanta.

"The easy thing to say is that the chemistry is really, really great," he said. "When you're living in the moment and you're feeling it and you're seeing it every day, you just know that this is really high-level (stuff), the kind of stuff that you want and aspire to for chemistry. I've certainly been fortunate to be around a lot of teams, either as a head coach or an assistant coach, that had great chemistry. This group, it feels like it's in the upper echelon, if not at the top. I think those things matter. The caring, the getting along and the togetherness are certainly something we take a lot of pride in cultivating. This group just takes to it. They've been great."

For NBA players, the most important stats are minutes, shots and points, probably in that order. On this Bucks team, however, no one seems to care about who plays the most, scores the most or gets up the most shots. Everyone has a voice, everyone is heard, everyone contributes.

The Bucks need to take advantage of that in the next month because the only problem with good chemistry is that it usually is fleeting.

BUCKS BITS: The Bucks will face the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Championship Series. Games one is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, in Milwaukee. All Bucks-Raptors games will be on TNT.