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Championship behind them, Bucks must map out new course

That last one is the biggest and trickiest for the Milwaukee Bucks, who celebrated their 2021 NBA championship Tuesday at Fiserv Forum with a giddy pregame ceremony and then celebrated the ceremony with a 127-104 victory over Brooklyn.

Beating the Nets to open the league’s 2021-22 regular season was a nice nod to what the Bucks did in June, going all the way to Game 7, in overtime, to advance past Brooklyn in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
But it was a reminder, too, that last season was last season, and what Milwaukee subsequently did in beating Atlanta and then Phoenix to snag the Larry O’Brien Trophy is something they’ll never, ever do again.

Not that bunch, that time, that way. That’s the box the Bucks checked by winning the franchise’s first title in 50 years.

It was magnificent, from the “Deer District” crowd phenomenon outside the arena, hordes of fans watching home and road games in the open air, to the tears and elation that spilled over inside with the 105-98 Game 6 clincher over Phoenix three months ago. A half century of striving, across all those players and all those coaches to build a time bridge from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in 1971 to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton now, ended that night.

The job is done. The debt is settled. The box is checked.

So, what have the Bucks got for a second act?

That’s not meant to be flippant. It merely addresses the short turnaround from one remarkable success to a brand new 0-0 record (OK, 1-0 now). And the reality that nothing is going to be quite the same for this crew again.

No more cloud hovering over Antetokounmpo, so breathtakingly talented and centered, because his Most Valuable Player trophies outnumbered his rings 2-0. No speculation now, for a while anyway, about coach Mike Budenholzer’s job security. No questions about Middleton’s status as a suitable No. 2 (or not) to the Greek Freak or guard Jrue Holiday’s shooting in pivotal games or general manager Jon Horst’s maneuver to land, then lose, Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Winning papers over a lot.

Now Milwaukee is in the enviable position of playing free and easy, with little to prove and hardly any expectations nationally or even locally to match or top themselves. The stars of that 2021 mini-series already were or have been rewarded with contracts or extensions, and the honeymoon very well could last years.

Then again, maybe it’s not so enviable. For three years, the Bucks began their season with a clearly defined, sharply focused goal: climb that championship mountain.

And now? Could you blame them if things were a little blurry right now? They don’t have to win again. Nobody’s getting fired. Antetokounmpo’s stature among his peers isn’t an issue anymore – heck, he’s Top 75 material now, his legacy rubbing elbows with the league’s immortals.

Will that make 2021-22 easier? Or harder?

From the look of it Tuesday against the Nets, the tiniest of sample sizes, the Bucks won’t be fending off complacency. There was no ring-and-banner hangover, not with Milwaukee pouncing for a 37-25 lead after one quarter. (Actually, despite some history to the contrary, eight of the past 11 champions now have won on Ring Night.)

All the festivities before tipoff didn’t distract the Bucks from their cause. Whether it was the bejeweled transformer (ring-slash-pendant) prize handed out to deserving team and staff members, the presence of NBA commissioner Adam Silver at center court or the grand gesture of presenting a ring to longtime Bucks owner and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. Kohl, 86, owned the franchise for 29 years and kept it from being sold out of market when he took over in 1986.

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