While the Toronto Raptors were on the couch at home, licking their wounds after a very unlucky 2020-21 season, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 NBA championship by defeating the Phoenix Suns 4-2 after losing the first two games.
Raptors fans were at one point hoping and praying that Masai Ujiri’s connection to Giannis could potentially lure him away in free agency, but a brand new contract helped keep him in Milwaukee, push them to the Finals after years of failure, and create another hurdle Toronto will have to clear in order to contend.
The Raptors themselves aren’t that far removed from their own title, as they won the championship by defeating the Warriors 4-2, clinching on the road in Golden State.
That ability to overcome the odds and years of playoff failure is just one of the ways the 2019 Raptors and the 2021 Bucks are similar, as they were able to reach the mountaintop thanks to some aggressive moves and lucky breaks.
The Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks won with very similar formulas.
Roster additions that made an instant impact
The Raptors made the playoffs regularly under Ujiri, but couldn’t get over the hump to make it to the Finals. The roster was solid, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but it seemed like something was missing to elevate them to the next level. It was a bold decision and trade that helped Toronto win the championship.
DeRozan was a fan favorite that helped the Raptors make headlines year in and year out on their way to playoff appearances. However, as soon as Masai saw Kawhi Leonard on the market, he had to make a move to make the team more competitive.
Similarly, the Bucks had to get rid of Eric Bledsoe, who was part of the core of this team, and bring in Jrue Holiday to make an impact.
Holiday is not in the same tier as Kawhi, but they both gave their respective teams a lockdown defender. Holiday made key stops for the Bucks and would always defend the top player on the opposite end, while Leonard blunted the attack of even the best offensive players in the game.
Being bold has some advantages, including getting to end the year as the champion.
How the 2019 Raptors and 2021 Bucks got to the Finals
In the NBA, injuries are the difference between a team making it to the championship or being eliminated. Chris Paul, who made it to the Finals for the first time in his career can attest to how injuries have hampered his path to the Finals in the past.
For the Bucks, it was the fact that the Brooklyn Nets, who were the favorites to come out the East in 2021, faced injuries to two of their three superstars in James Harden and Kyrie Irving, which hurt their chances. For the Raptors in 2019, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant faced injuries, and Toronto took advantage.
Nonetheless, it sometimes takes a lucky bounce or two, to make it that far. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2019, Leonard took an impossible shot fading away from the basket that took multiple bounces before going in.
For the Bucks, the difference was in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semi-finals where Kevin Durant hit a shot that took the game to overtime rather than winning because of Durant’s foot being on the line.
The two events are eerily similar and helped the Raptors and Bucks in their respective championships get closer to the finals.
Small market teams earning their stripes
Toronto and Milwaukee are considered small market teams in the sense of not being able to attract marquee free agents to their city. These two teams had to build themselves with shrewd drafting, underrated free-agent signings, and aggressive trades.
For the Bucks, it was their first championship since 1971, a 50-year drought for the city. In the case of a young Raptors franchise, the 2019 championship was the first in their 24-year history. For both teams, it was a much-needed and long-awaited win.
For years, both teams struggled to make it out of the East despite a consistently deep roster. Both of them kept running into either LeBron James or Leonard, in Milwaukee’s case. It would take minor roster changes as well as some propitious events to lead them to the championship.