How former Knick Bobby Portis made most of NBA Finals chance

Much had been made about Milwaukee’s playoff adjustments, or lack thereof. But there was no better example of an NBA Finals tweak that worked than turning to Bobby Portis.

He went from suddenly-forgotten man back to a pivotal X-factor, and breathed some life into the Bucks in Sunday’s Game 3 win. Now after years of toiling on lottery-bound teams — including last season with the Knicks — Portis has a chance to not just get a ring, but play a role in earning it.

“Being from Arkansas, we can only dream of playing in the NBA Finals. With potentially only four games left, there’s nothing to hold back. Just give it all I have and just bring some energy,” said Portis, who brought exactly that after his Bucks had fallen in an 0-2 Finals hole to Phoenix.

After largely relegating his sixth man, coach Mike Budenholzer realized they needed a spark and Giannis Antetokounmpo needed support. And when Portis’ number was called, he was ready. He says he will be again in Wednesday’s Game 4 and beyond if called on.

“This is the NBA. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. You play two minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, have a good game, bad game, it’s next-day mentality,” Portis said. “[Now] it’s over with. It’s time to focus on Game 4. I don’t sit and sob or get mad or anything if I’m not playing. I want to win. I came to Milwaukee to try to impact winning and be the best Bobby Portis I can be.”

Bobby Portis
Bobby Portis

Portis went to the Bucks after the Knicks declined his $15 million team option. They offered him a new deal; but having spent all but one season of his career on a team that ended up in the lottery — and that 2017 season ending in a first-round exit — Portis was looking for a shot at contention.

In the end Portis inked in Milwaukee for two years and $7.5 million, but slipped from sixth man to fighting for playoff minutes. He was a DNP in the last four straight games of the second round series against the Nets, and only averaged 14.5 minutes when he played. Portis had only managed seven points on seven shots in the Finals before Sunday, logging just five minutes in Game 2.

That’s when Budenholzer — whose adjustments have come under scrutiny — made some changes. He put Khris Middleton in more actions, sparking his aggressiveness and shaking him out of his funk. And he also turned to Portis.

Portis responded with 11 points, eight rebounds and finishing a plus-19 — behind only Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday — in 18 key minutes.

“His shooting always stands out to me … and his ability to space the court and then also work the offensive glass, get some putbacks,” Budenholzer said. “His energy and activity defensively is good. He’s important for us, and helping him and finding a place for him is something we need to do.”

That shooting — his 47.1 percent from deep third in the NBA — can give the Bucks their most potent frontcourt with Portis at stretch four and Antetokounmpo at center.

To earn those minutes, Portis had to shore up his defense, something he had never been known for. But after slogging away on Knicks, Bulls and Wizards teams with a combined .389 winning percentage, he had to learn what real defense meant.

“When you want to win and impact winning, you have to sacrifice and do things you’re not used to,” Portis said. “I played with a lot teams that’d never be in this position, a lot of losing teams, a lot of tanking times that want a higher draft pick. The coaches let things slip when you’re on losing teams and don’t really mention that. Here, every possession matters.

“Coach Bud stays on us: taking care of the ball, rotating on defense, low man being there, top man X-ing out and all be connected on the floor talking and communicating. All those things help me be a better player, and I credit him and his staff. They really locked in with me the first couple months, just on me, on me, every day about defense. Some days I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t do nothin’ right.’ But trusting these guys has helped me get to this point.”

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