MILWAUKEE — Early on Tuesday evening, the Milwaukee Bucks officially closed the book on last season’s championship run in an emotional pre-game ceremony in front of a sold-out Fiserv Forum. The players and coaches received their rings and a brand new banner that celebrates their first title in 50 years was unfurled from the rafters. A few hours later, they walked back to the locker room after a convincing opening night win over the Brooklyn Nets, 127-104.
In many ways, it was the same old Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo was relentless on both ends of the floor, delivering show-stopping blocks and powerful slams en route to 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Khris Middleton was knocking down jumpers and flashing his playmaking skills. Jrue Holiday, until he went down with a bruised heel, was putting in work defensively. As a team, they launched 3s at will, played hard and fed off the energy of the crowd.
“Our approach is the same,” Giannis said. “First game, home opener, you can feel the energy, the jitters, guys like Michael Redd, Brandon Jennings were here. But we were able to come out there and do our job no matter what goes on. Jrue went down but we were able to come out compete, guys step up and do our job. So if our approach to the game does not change — the guys that are out there and coach [Mike Budenholzer] — it’s hard to change the culture of this team.”
But if you were in the building, it was hard not to notice there was something different about them. There was a new air about the team, an increased level of confidence. You could see it in the way they carried themselves, and in the way they played. Their opponents noticed it as well.
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“Yeah they definitely have more confidence,” Kevin Durant said. “When you have core guys that have been together for four to five years I think they get more comfortable with each other. And then having some success like winning the championship that naturally brings confidence. That’s going to be good for them all year. They’re gonna use that to squeeze out games. That experience of winning a championship and going through deep runs together that’s gonna win them a few games this year. So yeah, I see it.”
Their new attitude was evident just a few minutes into the game. After James Harden missed one of his patented step-back jumpers, Pat Connaughton secured the rebound and handed the ball to Middleton. Without taking a dribble, Middleton wound up and fired a rocket pass the length of the floor that split Harden and Joe Harris and hit Giannis in stride. The reigning Finals MVP did the rest, rocking the rim with an and-one jam and hanging on the rim for extra emphasis.
This was a team and a duo operating on a different level.
“We definitely got a lot more confidence to ourselves,” Middleton said. “It’s natural, we should. We are the champs. We’ve been through every type of situation you can go through so you know what to expect so there’s no need to worry about failing or whatnot because you know what to do. You know what’s expected of you to get back to that point.”
As the Bucks begin their quest for a repeat, which just seven other franchises in NBA history have accomplished, they’ll need to lean on both aspects that brought them success against the Nets — their long-established culture and their newfound confidence from winning a title.
“We got great leaders on our team,” Connaughton said. “Jrue, Giannis, Khris, they’re humble. So we have that confidence but it’s not a cockiness. There’s a good amount of teams out there that have championship on their mind, so it’s about remaining humble in the confidence we have.”
The Bucks are one of those teams with a championship on their mind, and if they can find the right balance there’s a good chance they’ll be celebrating another ring night in Milwaukee a year from now.