Today’s NBA likes to glorify individual moments and personalities. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 championship run, for instance.
Fifty years after the Milwaukee Bucks won their last world title, Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo poured in 50 points to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Wisconsin. It was poetic justice in every sense of the phrase for a franchise that stood by its core pieces for years. Amidst all the noise, Giannis and the Bucks finally had their vindication.
Carrying the load alongside the Greek Freak prior to his incendiary supernova of a game were his co-stars in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Who could forget Middleton’s offensive showcase en route to 40 points? What about Jrue Holiday’s Game 5 takeover where he was responsible for 24.3% of Milwaukee’s points and 59.1% of their assists?
Three games in a row, the Bucks stars took turns carrying the load for a team that was underestimated all season long. Each one had his moment proving why this team was for real, and why they are bonafide superstars in their own right.
Pat Connaughton is the unsung hero behind Milwaukee’s ring
With the ring, it isn’t a reach to say the Big Three in Milwaukee could run the East for years to come. The Bucks have their core trio locked up until the 2023-24 season, after all. They’ve never had the gravitas that other league superstars have attracted, but they’ve shown what they can do under the brightest lights and in the biggest moments.
Stars. That’s what they are. Superstars too, arguably.
But lost in the mix is something that’s really special. Much has been said about Milwaukee’s depth, which has yielded quality minutes from diamonds in the rough like Bryn Forbes, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Jeff Teague in the regular season. A cursory look past Milwaukee’s starting crew, and the team’s selfless mentality becomes clear throughout its entire playoff run. Most noticeable was Bobby Portis who certainly had his moments of glory. The Bucks super-sub quickly became a fan favorite in this playoff run by way of his infectious energy off the bench. His role was crucial as evidenced by his 16 points in the series-clinching win.
Beyond him still, the Bucks’ next-man-up culture was personified wholly in the play of Pat Connaughton, who hardly received the credit he deserved.
Before Donte DiVincenzo went down with an injury, Connaughton did not project to play that many minutes in the playoffs. To be sure, he was in the middle of a resurgent season where he played a crucial role off the Bucks bench. But with the playoffs looming and the services of PJ Tucker recently-acquired, it was hard to imagine Connaughton playing many minutes in Mike Budenholzer’s shortened rotation.
Pat Connaughton was, in many ways, the unsung hero for Milwaukee in this series with timely scoring and unbridled energy. Here’s why.
Connaughton faced the music
For all the criticism that (deservedly) came his way this year, Pat Connaughton responded in the best way imaginable.
After a regular season in which he posted norms of 6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game on 37.1% shooting from deep, Connaughton turned it up massively in the Finals. His playoff stats don’t look like a significant departure, where he put up 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 23 games.
Corner PC3. pic.twitter.com/uKRYuDsuXp
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 12, 2021
But two playoff disappointments since his arrival in Wisconsin, Planet Pat showed marked improvement across the board for the Bucks. Against the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, Connaughton shined with 9.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in his 30.0 minutes per game in the six-game series. He shot the ball decisively, ran the fastbreak, and worked within his role in the offense.
Signed on to be a rotation 3&D wing of sorts, Pat’s attempts from distance fell with impressive regularity. He shot the three-ball on 44.1% after shooting 37.5% in the past three playoff series. Even NBA commentator Mike Breen had to anoint Connaughton’s timely shooting with his legendary “Bang!” calls. Planet Pat received this honor not once, but twice in the NBA Finals.
PC3. BANG! pic.twitter.com/mPWtvPR5rg
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 15, 2021
Even then, his consistent shooting wasn’t even the best part about his performance against Phoenix.
Defense wins championships
Consider this statistic from the Bucks’ unit that saw its second-highest usage against the Suns. Milwaukee’s “small” lineup of Holiday, Connaughton, Middleton, Tucker, and Giannis gave up 105.1 points per 100 possessions in its 44 minutes against Phoenix. That would have been the league’s best defensive rating in the regular season, per Basketball-Reference.
Planet Pat’s defense had everything to do with it. He’s by no means an elite perimeter defender, but it’s clear from his hustle and energy that he gives his everything on that end of the floor. Though Pat’s efforts weren’t necessarily guaranteed stops, the Phoenix Suns learned quickly that he was not an easy target in isolation.
With PC as the closest defender, Devin Booker shot 7-of-16 (43.8%) and turned the ball over once, per NBA.com/stats matchup data. Chris Paul shot 6-of-10 (60.0%) but uncharacteristically turned the ball over thrice while sinking just one of his four attempts from three.
White men can jump
In the same lineup’s 198 possessions on the floor throughout the playoffs, Milwaukee rebounded 28.3% of their misses, per Cleaning the Glass. This number would have been good for the 82nd percentile in the league in offensive rebounding. What’s more, opposing teams also turned the ball over on 16.8% of their possessions, good for the 95th percentile.
Among other areas of the game, Milwaukee’s girth had everything to do with their four straight wins against Phoenix. The Bucks didn’t take long to pounce on their pronounced advantage in that area, as evidenced by the Bucks out rebounding the Suns for the series, 46-39 boards per game. The Bucks’ 79 total offensive rebounds embarrassed Phoenix’s 42 by the end of the series. Consequently, they finished with 30.7 combined points per game off turnovers and offensive rebounds, thanks in part to Connaughton’s efforts.
The numbers don’t pop out at you until you consider his size. Connaughton, a relatively small swingman for his position, has always played larger than his 6-foot-5 frame would suggest. His 180 minutes against Phoenix saw the Bucks snatching 34.2% of their misses for extra possessions. When he stepped off the floor, that number would sink down to a 26.9 offensive rebounding percentage, per NBA.com/stats. He pulled down board after board over the likes of Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and even Deandre Ayton by battling for position and beating them to the ball. That’s heart.
It wasn’t just how he hustled, but when he chose to come alive. Pat Connaughton’s 2.2 fourth-quarter rebounds per game ranked third in the entire Finals series, behind just Giannis and Ayton. Additionally, his 1.0 fourth-quarter offensive board a night was second behind the Greek Freak.
Pat Connaughton, leader of the Bench Mob:
14 PTS | 6 REB | 4/6 3PT pic.twitter.com/ZAh3YeryVk
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 18, 2021
It’s time to give Pat his flowers
For a player who fans wanted gone for practically all season, Pat Connaughton stepped up in these Finals for the Milwaukee Bucks. With the performance he put in, it’s not a stretch to say that without him, there is no championship parade in Wisconsin. Pat Connaughton was integral to this Finals run. It’s time Bucks fans recognize him as such.
Pat Connaughton. NBA Champion. pic.twitter.com/6AM0ydeZGS
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 21, 2021
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Totally agree. I’ve always liked Pat. He makes some mistakes here and there (shooting contested 3’s or dribbling the ball more than he should), but his rebounding, his clutch 3’s and his hustle were crucial. He is indeed, as PJ Tucker says, a dog!