If you’re just now seeing how strong the Bucks are, it’s too late

MILWAUKEE — It took all of 51 seconds for Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to declare to the world — and, more importantly, to the Toronto Raptors — how Game 2 was going to proceed.

A rim-rattling dunk of his own miss between two defenders. A vicious rejection of what looked like a clear two points for Raptors center Marc Gasol. Another powerful slam after he was left alone underneath the basket.

“I think it definitely set the tone,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what I tried to do.”

In an instant, the Bucks were off and running, controlling the action and never looking back as they dismantled Toronto, winning 125-103 on Friday night to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.

It has been considered a fait accompli for most of this season that the Golden State Warriors, armed with their four All-NBA stars, will march to a third straight title and a fourth in five years. Once the Warriors managed to dispatch their most bitter rival, the Rockets, in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals in Houston without Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, that feeling only grew stronger.

It’s about time, however, for that thinking to end.

“We got the MVP on our team, man,” Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon told ESPN as he walked off the court. “We got a bunch of good dudes on this team, a great coach … we’ve been winning like this all year, man.

“I have high expectations for this squad.”

The same now should be said for the rest of the basketball world.

Now, let’s get a couple of things straight: This series is far from over. The Raptors did win 58 games this season, they do have Kawhi Leonard and they still have the next two games happening in Toronto as they try to get back into this series. It was only 48 hours ago that Toronto was leading after three quarters and looking as if it could potentially steal the opening game of this series. And if Milwaukee does get to the NBA Finals, Durant is likely to make his return at some point, and Cousins might too.

So, no, this isn’t a declaration that the Larry O’Brien Trophy is coming to Milwaukee. But it is a recognition that the idea of a 2019 Bucks title should no longer be seen as a fantasy.

For six months, all the Bucks did was run roughshod over the league, putting up a league-best 60-22 record while doing it by an average margin of victory that put them among the best teams in recent memory. While doing so, though, people wondered what the Bucks would look like when they went up against fellow-elite competition in the playoffs.

After they dismantled the hopelessly overmatched Detroit Pistons in the first round, the wait was on to see what the Boston Celtics would do to them. After one blip in the opening game of that series, the Bucks rolled through the Celtics four straight times.

Now, after not only surviving a shaky showing in Game 1, but throttling the Raptors from start to finish in Game 2, it’s time to stop repeatedly asking if these Bucks are for real, but to instead wonder why it has taken so long for everyone else to acknowledge it.

In some respects, the doubts about these Bucks were exceedingly normal. The last time this franchise won a playoff series, Antetokounmpo was 6 years old and living in Athens, Greece. The Bucks have exited the playoffs in first-round losses in three of the past four seasons, and only one player in their regular rotation — reserve guard George Hill — has any NBA Finals experience.

Teams don’t typically skip steps in the NBA playoffs. They certainly don’t normally leap over them. Yet that is precisely what the Bucks seem to be doing.

Much of that is down to the presence of Antetokounmpo, who has gone from one of the game’s brightest young talents to arguably the best player in the world. It was fitting that, prior to the Bucks stampeding past the Raptors on Friday, the NBA announced its finalists for this year’s awards show next month in Los Angeles, with Antetokounmpo finishing among them for both the league’s Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors.

It is his singular ability to impact the game at both ends — he finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in Game 2 — that makes him a singular force, one around which the Bucks have constructed their entire team.

“I’m beyond fortunate to have Giannis,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s incredible, and then you’re like, ‘Wow, I think he can be even better.’

“The great part about Giannis is, he wants to be better. And we’re coaching him and we’re on him, and we think he can be doing more, and he just soaks it up. It’s just so unique to have a player like that, that just wants to be great, and you feel like he has more.”

Though Budenholzer was assessing his star, the same sentiment can be shared throughout Milwaukee’s roster. It was equally fitting that Budenholzer was named as a finalist for NBA Coach of the Year on Friday, as it is his system built around Antetokounmpo that has allowed this team to take off.

The same can be said for the team’s general manager, Jon Horst, who signed Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton last summer for a combined $12 million, then executed a pair of excellent midseason trades to add Hill and Nikola Mirotic.

All five of those players have become key cogs in Milwaukee’s playoff rotation — one that has remained at a steady nine players throughout the playoffs and has held up even as other, supposedly deeper teams have gone up against it.

“It’s amazing,” Antetokounmpo said of Milwaukee’s depth. “It’s so nice seeing guys come into the game being mentally prepared, setting the tone for the whole team and just playing hard.

“On this team, any given night, guys can step up. … This is the beauty of basketball. This is the beauty of our team, that we trust one another.”

The Bucks have trusted one another throughout this magical season. What they have been waiting for — at least until now — is for the rest of the basketball world to catch up to them.

In the hallways of Fiserv Forum after Milwaukee’s Game 2 victory, that feeling was beginning to spread. Yes, there is a long way to go. Yes, the Raptors remain a formidable threat, one good enough to still make this a more competitive series. Yes, the Warriors almost certainly loom on the horizon after that, with one of the greatest collections of star power the league has ever seen — and with the championship know-how and experience Milwaukee lacks.

What the Bucks do have, though, is their résumé. The Bucks have been the NBA’s dominant force all season, a wrecking ball that has smashed through virtually everything put in its way. Milwaukee has an incandescent star and a system that both perfectly fits that star and is manned by ideally suited supporting pieces. And if the Bucks do advance to the NBA Finals, they will have home-court advantage.

That is a formula that could produce this year’s NBA champion. It’s time to start acknowledging that as more than a fanciful proposition. Instead, it is a perfectly reasonable reality.

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