MILWAUKEE -- Late in the third quarter of Game 5 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, the crowd inside Fiserv Forum was growing restless. Their beloved Bucks were in control, but hadn't quite put the Celtics away. The knockout blow was coming though, just not in the manner anyone could have expected.
With just over two minutes left in the frame, Eric Bledsoe slipped to the rim after a pick-and-roll, but missed his layup. It was an unremarkable play, but it set off a remarkable chain of events. Bledsoe was able to secure his own rebound, and by the time the Bucks' possession was finished 34 seconds later, Milwaukee had grabbed four offensive rebounds and drawn a foul on the Celtics. They didn't even end up scoring, but it didn't matter; the game was over, and everyone knew it.
The Bucks ran away from the Celtics after that point, securing a 116-91 win, a 4-1 series victory and their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001. For all of the signature moments we've seen throughout this season's playoffs, the Bucks delivered theirs not with a buzzer beater or ridiculous dunk, but with a wave of offensive rebounds. It was unconventional, but fitting for a Bucks team that overwhelmed teams all season long.
"It's an unusual place for us to get four or five offensive rebounds, but I think it speaks to some of the guys who were laying it all on the line, and doing everything they could to maintain and build the lead," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "The competitive spirit of the group was impressive. Not just that possession, but the whole night."
And at risk of putting too many words in Budenholzer's mouth, the entire season as well. The Bucks are a team in every sense of the word. They show up, they play hard, they do the little things and they just do not let up. Even when stretches or games don't go their way, they keep grinding, putting faith in the belief that if they do things the right way on a consistent basis, they'll be rewarded. And as this series showed, they were right.
"Everything they've done in this series they've done all year," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said pre-game. "This is not a huge surprise. The substance they play with, the competitiveness, the multiple efforts, toughness, just go down the list -- all the good adjectives. This is what a 60-win team looks like, and you credit them for that. They've built this habit by habit. You know that you can't let go of the rope at any point in the game, and any time we have we've gotten exposed."
That isn't to say the Bucks are untalented. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player in the league this season and deserves to be named MVP, Khris Middleton was an All-Star and Eric Bledsoe had a bounce-back season where he was dynamite on the defensive end. But no one would confuse them for a super team. For as much talent as they have, they earn much of their success by wearing teams down, just as they did on that fateful possession late in the third quarter.
They didn't play their best basketball on Wednesday night, but it didn't matter. Giannis kept charging towards the rim, they kept firing 3s even though they weren't going down at the usual rate and they kept flying around on defense. It might not have been pretty, but the sum of their efforts was enough. And they were willing to give that effort because of all the equity they've built with each other by playing that exact same way all season long.
"The most important thing, and the great thing about this team is that after Game 1, I got a text from this guy, Bledsoe, saying, 'We got this guys. We're gonna come out and win games,'" Antetokounmpo said. "And that's what happened. When your teammates are all on the same page and you know you have their back and they have your back, things like this are going to happen."
Now, the Bucks are taking their system, the constant, unending pressure they put on opponents -- and Antetokounmpo, of course -- to the Eastern Conference finals, where the franchise hasn't been in almost two decades. There they'll face either the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
It's a spot they earned, but Antetokounmpo and Co. know there will still be those that doubt them, and they're ready to continue proving everyone wrong.
"There's going to be a lot of people that are going to doubt us," Antetokounmpo said. "That's the world of basketball. There's going to be people with us and people against us, but at the end of the day we are really hungry to achieve our goals, and that's all I care about."
With Antetokounmpo leading the way, and a relentless approach to every single game, they just might go all the way and achieve those goals.