LITTLE ROCK — Former Arkansas star Bobby Portis had already ascended to rock star status in Milwaukee in his first season as a Buck, but on Tuesday he took a giant step in cementing his legacy as one of the key cogs in the organization’s first NBA championship in 50 years.
Portis finished with his Finals-best of 16 points (6-of-10 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 1 block in 23 minutes in Milwaukee’s 105-98 Game-6, NBA Finals-clinching home victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, and it was his increased role off the bench after his team fell behind 2-0 in the Best-of-7 series that helped fuel a 4-game winning streak to give the Bucks a confetti and champagne celebration on their homecourt at Fiserv Forum. It’s Milwaukee’s first NBA title since the 1970-71 season, when league legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson starred for the Bucks, and it was the organization’s first appearance in a Finals since ’73-74.
Portis (6-10 forward / center, Little Rock native) totaled 7 points and 5 rebounds in a combined 19 minutes in the Bucks’ losses in the first two games in Phoenix, but his 11-point, 8-rebound performance in 18 minutes in Game 3 at home sparked Milwaukee to its first win in the Finals while serving as the launching pad for a more meaningful role for Portis in the Finals which in turn aided in the team’s series-closing 4-game winning spree.
Portis averaged 9.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in 20.0 minutes while shooting 42.4%% from the field, including 43.8% from 3, and 5-of-5 for 100% from the free throw line in those four Bucks’ Finals victories.
But it wasn’t just his stats, it was clutch plays and timely impact in game-critical moments that made Portis’ contributions memorable.
Like his transition dunk followed by a three-point field goal in a 33-second span late in the second quarter that pushed to Bucks from an 8-point lead to a 13-point advantage that swelled to a final winning score of 120-100 in Game 3. Or his key blocked shot with the Bucks up 3 at the 5:55 mark of the fourth quarter followed by two big rebounds less than a minute later in the Bucks 109-103 home win in Game 4. Then in a classic battle in Game 5 in Phoenix, Portis helped the Bucks erase a 16-point deficit as it was his two three-point plays — an old-fashioned and-1 putback in the paint followed by a left-corner three-point field goal in a 28-second span — that gave Milwaukee its first lead, 50-49 at the 5:46 mark of the 2nd quarter, since scoring the first basket of the game en route to a 123-119 win for the first road victory by either team in the series.
Portis capped his clutch playoff play in Game 6 with his best scoring production, and arguably his best collective defensive effort, in the Finals series in what proved to be another close game. He scored 6 of the Bucks’ first 15 points to start the 4th quarter as the team broke a 77-all tie coming into the final period while building a 92-86 lead with 6:58 to play as the Suns never pulled closer than a 4-point deficit the rest of the way.
For everything he accomplished in Milwaukee since signing a two-year, free-agent deal in the offseason — becoming the only non-starter in the league to average at least 10 points and 7 rebounds in the regular season; finishing third in the league in three-point shooting percentage; posting the 40th best NBA Player Efficiency Rating; averaging double-figure scoring in playoff series wins against Miami (first round) and Atlanta (Eastern Conference Finals) while taking over as a starter to help close the ECF series with two straight wins over the Hawks before making significant contributions to a league championship over the Suns; and ultimately hearing the chants from the home crowd: “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” — ALL of it has earned Portis the first annual Pro Hoop Hogs Player of Year honor.
From a Pro Hoop Hogs historical perspective relative to the NBA Finals, Portis has nudged ahead of an exclusive club.
He becomes the first former Razorback to win an NBA championship since Russellville native Corliss Williamson helped the Detroit Pistons upend the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1, in the ’03-04 NBA Finals.
Other former Hogs had also been part of NBA championship teams — Scott Hastings (Detroit Pistons in ’89-90), Darrell Walker (Chicago Bulls in ’92-93), and Joe Kleine (Chicago Bulls in ’97-98) — but none outside of Portis and Williamson were key rotational players. As a rookie in ’92-93, former Arkansas star Oliver Miller was a starter for the Suns — which was the last time they played in an NBA Finals until the ’20-21 season — but Phoenix lost that championship series too, 4-2, to the same Bulls team that Walker played for sparingly.
There are now new markers that Portis has established for former Hogs playing in an NBA Finals. He holds the distinction as the only former Razorback to score in double-figures in an NBA Finals game (something he did twice with 16 points in Game 6 and 11 points in Game 3), and combined with the 9 points he scored in Milwaukee’s Game 5 road win he now holds the three highest-scoring games by a former Hog in the Finals. His 8 rebounds in Game 3 is tied with Miller for the most boards by a former Hog in a Finals game. His Finals series average of 7.7 points per game also ranks tops among former Hogs. And, he’s the only former Hog to make a three-pointer in a Finals game (although that stat is a bit misleading given that the other “Finals Hogs” played in eras when three-point shooting was an afterthought and not a part of the offensive scheme).
Adding to the intrigue and richness of his Bucks lore is the fact that Portis is the only former Hog out of many who played in Milwaukee to help the organization reach the Finals.
Once upon a time — for 19 consecutive seasons (1979 to 1998) — the Milwaukee Bucks had at least one former Hog on their roster: Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (1979-89) whose Bucks jersey is retired; all-star Alvin Robertson (1989-93); Tony Brown(1988-90); 1992 NBA Draft first-round picks Todd Day (1992-95) and Lee Mayberry (1992-96); and Andrew Lang (1996-1998).
Lots of wins, success, and hope for the future generated in Milwaukee with those former Razorbacks playing significant roles, but only the under-the-radar, self-proclaimed Underdog Portis helped the Bucks beyond the Eastern Conference finals.
With two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo out with a hyper-extended knee and the ECF series knotted up at 2-2, Portis joined the starting lineup in the last two games and averaged 17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 steals as the No. 3 seed Bucks went 2-0 to close out the series against the 5th-seeded Atlanta Hawks, 4-2, to punch their ticket to the Finals.
Portis — he averaged 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 steal overall in the Milwaukee-Atlanta series — began hearing the thunderous chants of “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” from the grateful Bucks fans inside Fiserv early on in the ECF series and the chorus has continued ever since — at Fiserv, from the throng of Bucks fans watching outdoors on big screen TVs in the Deer District, at local bars, and on social media video posts.
“It’s a blue-collar city and I’m a blue-collar player … I still give my all to the team 100%, for the name in front of the jersey and they love players like that,” Portis explained after the Bucks’ 123-112 home win over Atlanta in ECF Game 5 during which Portis made his first career playoff start and finished with a playoff career-high 22 points to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.
Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged the value Portis brought to the team.
“His teammates love him,” he said following that Game 5 win over the Hawks. “The fans love him. He brings that passion for the game, for life. He’s fun to be around. I think the crowd can feel that. His teammates can feel that. Coaches can feel it. He’s a worker, too.
“It’s a little bit of everything, but passion to me is the thing he brings to the game.”
While current Milwaukee stars Antetokounmpo (a.k.a the Greek Freak), Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez were the obvious choices to shoulder expectations to finally deliver postseason results after recent Eastern Conference top-seeded Milwaukee teams faltered in the playoffs, it was the underdog Portis who emerged unexpectedly as one of the heroes after coming in quietly in the offseason on a 2-year, $7.4 million contract.
Like everything else with Portis, his ascent has been organic without aid of pomp and circumstance. Portis finished the regular season averaging 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in only 20.8 minutes per game — again, that made him the only NBA non-starter to average at least 10 points and 7 rebounds per outing. His 47.1% shooting from 3 was third-best in the league, his 52.3% overall shooting from the field was among the best in the league, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 20.00 ranked him 40th in the league.
His production is even more impressive when considering the fact that, again, it was organic and not by design. In other words, the Bucks don’t run plays specifically for Portis. Everything he gets is unselfishly self-created off grit and hustle — putbacks, transition run-outs, secondary-transition post-feeds, or reads off pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop.
That he was left out of serious contention for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award seems like League malpractice.
Production aside, Portis’ energy, hard-hat / hard-working approach, and team-first attitude have pushed the right impact buttons with his teammates.
“He’s so incredible,” Bucks starting center and one-time NBA all star Brook Lopez said during the Atlanta series. “He does a bit of everything for us. He gets the crowd going, he gets us going when he makes big plays. Whether it’s a steal, offensive rebound, score-and-one. He’s always bringing energy, playing hard, and I just love that so much about him. I love that guy!”
As consistently good as he was in the regular season and most of the NBA Playoffs, not everything was rosy in this postseason for Portis.
He followed his strong showing in a first-round sweep of Miami (he averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in just 17.8 minutes per game while shooting 59.5% from the field) with diminishing returns against the No. 2 seed Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals as Budenholzer opted to play mostly a small-ball lineup that shrank Portis’ playing time in the first four games of the series before relegating him to no game action in the final three outings in the Bucks’ dramatic 4-3 series win. Milwaukee went 2-2 with Portis playing in the series, and 2-1 when he did not play.
Cue the underdog theme music, because Portis not only regained his role for the Atlanta series in the ECF, but he was consistently effective and certainly instrumental as a starter in sending the Bucks to the NBA Finals.
“I didn’t play the last couple games in the Brooklyn series, but I didn’t pout,” Portis said. “I just kept working and knew my time would come. I always just believe if you do the things the right way and you do right, it always comes back around. The cream always rises to the top. I just tried to stay in the moment and be a team guy and I give all the credit to my teammates and Coach for just trusting me.”
In his lone season in New York in ’19-20 after signing a two-year, free-agent deal with the Knicks, Portis played in 66 games (starting five times) while seeing a significant dip in his production — 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per outing — relative to his previous two seasons in the NBA. The Knicks declined the team option on Portis — which reportedly would have paid Portis $15.7 million in ’20-21 — and as an offseason free agent he ultimately turned down more lucrative deals to join a playoff contender in Milwaukee for less money.
“Coming here was one of the best decisions for my career,” Portis said. “I started my career kind of shaky, up and down, a lot of highs, a lot of lows, as well, and when you first come to the NBA, you don’t really understand the journey.
“Coming here was the best decision, like I said, of my career.”
As a sophomore at Arkansas in ’14-15, Portis was the SEC Player of the Year and second-team All American when the Hogs won 27 games, finished second in the SEC at 13-5, and finished the season ranked 20th in the nation. The former McDonald’s All American (2013) left school after his sophomore season and was drafted 22nd overall in the first round by the Chicago Bulls in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Portis played in three full seasons (2015-2018) plus 22 games into the ’18-19 campaign with the Bulls before a trade to Washington, where he played in 28 games to finish out the season and subsequently became the aforementioned offseason free-agent signee with the New York Knicks.
Portis, 26, has averaged double-figure scoring in each of the last 4 seasons, and his best statistical year was in ’18-19 (split between Chicago and Washington) when in a combined 50 games played he averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in 26.0 minutes per contest while shooting 44.4% from the field, including a then-career-best 39.3% from 3, and a career-best 79.4% from the free throw line.
In his 6-year NBA career, Portis has played in 381 regular-season games and averaged 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 20.5 minutes per outing while shooting 46.8% from the field, including 38.0% from 3, and 75.2% from the free throw line. Portis has appeared in the NBA playoffs in two seasons, including his second year in the league when he averaged 6.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in Chicago’s 4-2 first-round Eastern Conference series loss against Boston.