MILWAUKEE — Hours before the Milwaukee Bucks won a pivotal Game 5 on the road in Phoenix to move one win away from celebrating the ultimate prize, Pat Connaughton walked into the arena sporting a black T-shirt with the face of his teammate Bobby Portis plastered on the front.
On the shirt read, “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!,” as in the chants he receives from fans at the Bucks’ home arena at Fiserv Forum. But Connaughton’s shirt received more attention after the game when he wore it to his postgame news conference.
Portis, 26, has been one of the unsung heroes for the Bucks in these playoffs. He has stepped up in huge moments when the team was without its franchise player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and has provided a jolt of energy and a toughness that’s been endearing to fans. He hasn’t just become a fan favorite; he’s become a team favorite, as well.
“Man, I did not know Pat was going to wear that shirt,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “The first time I saw the Bucks had released those shirts was before Game 4. When I was driving to the arena, I saw a couple of fans outside with the shirts on and that threw me off a little bit. Then I saw some guys inside wearing them. But to see my teammate who I go to battle with everyday; we’re like brothers. We fight for each other on the court and do whatever’s necessary to be in this position. To have his support and have him walking to the arena and going to the press conference with my face on the shirt, that means the world to me. That just shows how close this culture is in Milwaukee. I’ve been on a lot of teams. This is my fourth team in six years and this culture is all about the right things. It’s a great situation for me. Great teammates, great coaches and everybody believing in you. That just makes you go out there and give your all to them. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity and I’m so excited for Game 6 on Tuesday.”
Whether diving for loose balls, coming up with huge offensive rebounds, getting key defensive stops or hitting timely corner threes, Portis said it’s incredible to be acknowledged and respected for doing the “little things.”
Bucks fans have fallen in love with the way Portis injects his character into these games, and to show their appreciation, he’s showered with the chants and cheers that star players often hear.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “This is like an everyday thing. No matter if I’m making shots or missing shots, they love the fact that I play hard and give my all to the team. I go after 50-50 balls and do all the things necessary to impact winning. This is a blue-collar city. The people of Milwaukee work hard as they can for their families. I think us winning and the way we play has brought the city together. My style of play just connects with the fan base, and I think they appreciate that.”
The Suns were the hottest team of the playoffs going into the 2021 NBA Finals. And by striking first and winning the first two games of the series, most assumed the Bucks were on the verge of falling short yet again, especially with the uncertainty on the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For the next few days, the storylines were on Chris Paul receiving his first NBA championship and where it would place him among the greatest point guards to ever play the game.
“When you lose two games and everybody’s counting you out, that’s just what it is and we had to accept it,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “But we didn’t really sit around and talk about ‘we need to do this and do that.’ We already knew what we needed to do, which was win a game. That’s why we came out in Game 3 with so much swag and confidence and won the game. And from then on, it’s just been a fun ride for us. We’re one win away from hosting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.”
The Bucks grew accustomed to being counted out this season.
“We went through a lot of rough patches during the season,” Portis explained to Yahoo Sports. “This team was the No. 1 the last two years, but this year we flew under the radar by being the third seed. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on us. There was more pressure on the other teams. Brooklyn had Kevin Durant, Kyrie [Irving] and [James] Harden. Everybody had their eyes on those guys. And then you had [Joel] Embiid having the season he had in Philly to help them get the No. 1 seed, and then you had us matching up against the Heat, a team that beat the Bucks last year. Nobody really talked about the Bucks, so we were just at ease with that. And all those things just helped us get to the point where we’re at now.”
Portis was one of the first teammates to rush Antetokounmpo in Game 5 following what may be the most important and-1, alley-oop in the history of the franchise. Portis and teammates rushed the floor with Portis slapping Antetokounmpo on the head with excitement.
“How bad he wants to win stands out to me,” Portis told Yahoo Sports of Antetokounmpo. “He’s selfless and a great teammate. Coming into the league, you really don’t understand the marathon, but Giannis gets it. He gets the highs and the lows. He gets what comes with being the superstar he is. He’s a pro’s pro. Being around him everyday makes me sacrifice more. Seeing how him, Khris [Middleton] and Jrue [Holiday] are always locked in is inspiring. They take the game seriously, they take care of their bodies, they eat clean and healthy, they lift everyday and get their work in. They never complain. I just credit them. Being around that, it’s been a joy and a hell of a ride.”
Early in this series, it looked as if the Bucks and Portis wouldn’t fare too well.
For the sixth-year veteran, he was targeted defensively in the first two games by Paul and Devin Booker. Those two stars would call for a screen from the teammate that either Portis or Connaughton was guarding to get the switch before attacking offensively.
“I’m not even going to lie, there was only one play where Chris really got at me when I was just reaching,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “The other plays when Chris Paul shot a couple jumpers, I contested just like I am now but he’s missing now. I have a lot of pride about myself. Coming back to the hotel and watching the same thing over and over and guys attacking you with me reaching, I had to do better.”
One of the major adjustments Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has made in this series has been on the defensive end.
“We’re just mixing it up now,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “Games 1 and 2, we were just switching, switching, switching. Now, we’re mixing it up during the games and changing up our schemes and throwing them off a little bit. We’re giving them a different look. When you get to the league, these are the best players in the world and when you give a guy a heavy dosage of the same thing, he’s going to pick you apart. I think coach Bud and his staff have done a great job at mixing up things. I like that part of the adjustment.”
The toughest win is always the final one. By stringing together three consecutive wins, the Bucks have an opportunity to close it out at home to procure their first championship in 50 years.
The Bucks have been knocking on the door of league supremacy for some time now, and it’s finally theirs for the taking. This is exactly what Portis has been searching for.
“I signed here for a lot less than what I could have received at other places because I wanted to have a role on a winning team and a winning culture,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to experience that. It’s been a long journey for me, but I’m at peace for the first time in my life. Being here with my family, my trainer and this team has helped me find myself again. So far so good. One more win.”
More from Yahoo Sports: