The NBA Playoffs have a way of making unlikely heroes. Especially in a season where injuries to star players have reigned.
And on Thursday, Bobby Portis entered Bucks lore. Making his first career postseason start — and in place of an injured Giannis Antetokounmpo at that — the sixth-year forward notched 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals in a 123-112 Game 5 win over the Atlanta Hawks that drew Milwaukee within one win of its first NBA Finals berth since 1974.
“He just plays with great passion. I think his passion is infectious,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters after the game. “The crowd can feel that, his teammates can feel that, his coaches can feel it.”
Portis agreed, saying his “blue-collar” playstyle appeals to a blue-collar city like Milwaukee. It’s the latest in a line of memorable playoff soundbites from the same player who compared himself to BP, the oil company, because of his ability to bring “energy and gas” to games.
Once upon a time, it was the Chicago Bulls faithful cheering every hustle play and spirited scream from the hard-nosed Arkansas native. The John Paxson-Gar Forman front office regime drafted Portis with the 22nd pick in the 2015 draft, tipping off a three-and-a-half season tenure with the team.
That tenure featured productive play that engendered him to a large swath of the fanbase, albeit with dashes of controversy, including an incident in which Portis punched Nikola Mirotić in the face during a preseason practice in 2018.
It ended with the February 2019 trade that sent Portis and Jabari Parker to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Otto Porter Jr. Portis wound up leaving the Wizards in restricted free agency that summer, cashing a one-year, $15 million contract with the New York Knicks one calendar turn after turning down a multi-year extension worth $40-50 million with the Bulls.
Now, Portis is making a shade over $3.6 million with the Bucks on a contract that carries a $3.8 million player option for 2021-22 (which he may be in the process of out-performing). But, contributing massively to a team with legitimate title aspirations, he says he’s “finally found peace.”
“Coming here (to Milwaukee) was one of the best decisions for my career. I started my career kinda shaky, up-and-down. Lot of highs, lot of lows as well,” Portis said. “When you first come into the NBA you don’t really understand the journey… Come from college, I’m the best player on my team, player of the year, All-American, All-American in high school. When I first got to the league, I wasn’t playing a lot, didn’t really understand, was kind of lost in the shuffle a little bit.
“But I fought my way in, played some, went through a lot of altercations and things like that. But the journey is what makes it sweet, man. In the NBA, you really can’t put a tab on that.”
That’s a credit, Portis says, to teammates and a coaching staff that trust and believe in him, and have instilled in him championship-level attention to detail — from Khris Middleton preaching the importance of boxing out, to Antetokounmpo encouraging him to shoot more, to Budenholzer impressing fundamental defensive principles. Even before this postseason run, Portis posted a career-high in 3-point percentage (47.1) in 66 regular-season appearances while averaging 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds.
“When you’re on losing teams, like I said, you kind of take the moment for granted, you’re just out there playing and trying to get stats,” Portis said. “But when I came here, guys was locked in.”
In the NBA, opportunity — and the spoils of it — can come and go with the wind. Portis understands this as well as anyone. His latest chance, after all, comes one series after he logged three consecutive DNPs in Games 5-7 against the Brooklyn Nets.
So the focus remains on locking in as long as he’s needed, and providing what he can, as the Bucks’ championship march continues.
“I’m a big believer in the 12 o'clock rule,” Portis said. “When 12 o’clock comes, it’s on to the next one.”