Tonight, a Greek died in Toronto.
These words came to me as I recalled the unbridled optimism I and a friend had shared on a cool May night just two weeks prior. As we drove back to our little Wisconsin hometown after having spent the day in Green Bay making paper and exchanging good times with another friend who had just moved up there, we pondered the state of the NBA.
"You know, some people may blast me for saying it, but I really feel like this is our year. This is our year."
See, I'm relatively young to recall what such a feeling must really be like. I was 11 when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the last sports championship to come home to Wisconsin. And as I've grown up with that image of faded glory in my mind, I've grown all too accustomed to watching the hopes and dreams of cheesehead athletics be ripped apart in putrid fashion.
2014 NFC Championship Game. Loss.
2016 NFC Championship Game. Loss.
2018 NL Championship Series. Loss.
And now, in resounding fashion, the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals has resulted in a loss for Wisconsin.
As they say, the hits keep coming.
I may not know such resounding feelings of triumph, but I know all too well what this feeling of loss is. Just a few weeks ago, I was sure I was on track to know the former. The "our year" kind of mentality. The kind of feeling that must be rippling through Toronto and all of Canada right now.
Tonight, a Greek died in Toronto, and nobody seems to know why.
The statistics, slim as the odds may have been, had the Bucks favored in this series. At least at the start. The statistics, factoring in defense (whose name gets a bad rap in an offense-driven league), showed that Giannis Antetokounmpo would more often than not wind up on top.
And yet, in six games, he only managed to get the best of two of them.
Now, in all fairness, just about all of them were close at one point, including tonight. And yet, they were virtually all also decidedly in the bag at one point, including tonight. The Bucks led by 15 in the 3rd quarter of Game 6, and yet the Raptors still managed to mount a comeback. And it all flowed through one man: Kawhi Leonard.
Scoring 27 points tonight to go along with a whopping 17 rebound and seven assists, Kawhi was dominant as he has been all series. He rallied. He swooped. He dove. He leapt. He did everything the Bucks tried to do, only better.
It's fitting in the era of three-point shooting that the superstar decisively built to shoot the three, Kawhi, outplayed the man whose build is decisively antithetical to said shot in Giannis.
Antetokounmpo was no slouch, scoring 21 points of his own, but very few of those came when his team needed them. He only took five shots in the final frame, and of those only made a single layup.
That's not the work of a champion. That's what'll get you killed.
Now, this loss is not only the Greek Freak's fault. There were bricks thrown by plenty of other players as well. Eric Bledsoe once again only had an underwhelming eight points in the entire game. The Raptors defense was firm in the middle and forced Milwaukee into taking difficult threes. Too many times, I think, did the Bucks compromise, as Giannis pulled up from drive after drive to the basket to toss it to the outside.
Milwaukee lived and died by their points in the paint this year, especially as scored by the Greek Freak, and with that gone the whole system sullied.
So, what's next?
Well, it still seems that in every likelihood Giannis will win MVP and Coach Mike Budenholzer will win Coach of the Year. But, these awards will ring hollow. The true hardware of the kind that Brew City hasn't seen since 1971 will rest in either Toronto or Oakland…again.
Going into next season, things get harrier. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon are all up for free agency. So are bench players George Hill and Nikola Mirotic. Milwaukee can afford to bring some of them back, likely at least Middleton and Lopez, but doing so may push the luxury tax. And Giannis himself is up for the supermax extension after the 2019-2020 season, a move that'll eat up even more room on the Bucks' payroll.
In short, the clock is ticking. One maybe two years remain before the math gets too tricky for the Bucks.
And yet, all is not lost.
As far as eliminated teams go, the Bucks are better off than most. Retaining a league MVP and COY is a deadly combo that no one will want to tango with. And now, with deep playoff experience on their side, there's every reason to think Giannis will be that much more motivated to succeed. After all, no one anticipated him growing into what he's become when he entered the league as a relative unknown in 2013. Who's to say he doesn't get even better next year?
Tonight, a Greek died in Toronto…and yet the possibility of his return is all too palpable.
As my roommate wished me good night in the game's aftermath, he could sense the trepidation in my tacit response.
"Yeah, good night," I said.
"Oh, well yeah. Well, there will be good nights," he reassured me.
"Oh, for sure, you're right. There'll be better nights. Better nights ahead."