After Jimmy Butler owned the 48-hour news cycle by slamming the door on Milwaukee’s (long!) fingers late in Game 1, he entered Game 2’s fourth quarter with eight points. The Heat were doing just fine; cruising along with a Miami cool. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks were divebombing into defenders like a scene out of Bird Box. As the Heat’s role players calmly re-extended to a comfortable lead in their 116-114 victory, play-by-play man Dave Pasch (Madison’s own) posed a simple question:
“Who is gonna be the guy for Milwaukee down the stretch of these playoff games?”— nick wright (@getnickwright) September 3, 2020
Not the question you want the PxP announcer asking when the 2x defending MVP is on your team.
To this point in the series, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been more white walker than ice dragon; Miami’s wall isn’t close to tumbling down. Giannis’s numbers will persist, he still finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2, but for Bucks fans, the statistics pale in comparison to the story. After Giannis put Milwaukee within three, 105-102 with 5:30 left, the Bucks didn’t score again until Giannis hit two free throws with 1:45 remaining.
As Pasch pondered who would step up for Milwaukee, we went Clockwork Orange, taping our eyes open to watch Wes Matthews pivot in the post like a 4th grade practice, Eric Bledsoe throw an interception to the corner, as well as Middleton, Lopez and Bledsoe miss point blank shots. All the while, Giannis took just one attempt.
If I went back and watched, sans the turnovers, those shots were probably fine. They didn’t need Giannis to take over Jimmy Buckets style and not pass. That’s not Giannis’s style either; he’s a team-man through and through. He wouldn’t even consider the idea of deviating from Commander Bud’s instructions! No sir! So, what happens when the team construct, the “all for one, and one for all” ethos Bud installed over two years crumbles beneath the mighty might of a Heat team who exemplify The Three Musketeers more than these Bucks right now? We get situations like Game 2, where the league’s heir apparent apparently can’t quite tip his team over the hump.
How do we square the idea that a presumptive back-to-back MVP isn’t ready to lead his team down the stretch? That he is a player who can be “solved?” It’s no coincidence that discussion over “solving” Bud’s rigid, perfectionist schemes coincides with the Raptors snuffing out the once unstoppable meteoric rise of Giannis in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Giannis has always been a brute force player, even if his pirouetting feet in transition remain a marvel, it’s still a product of unrelenting speed. It’s a testament to his raw skill and tenacity to improve that he’s remained uber-efficient all these years.
But then we find ourselves in gut-check time, gritting our teeth and wondering if his 3-pointer will splash; if the turnaround elbow jumper we saw him practice in the regular season will fall; if that massive stepback move will ever return to his repertoire; if the baby hook might become his finishing move. Surely after the way last year ended, he would come back this year with every rough edge sanded to perfection.
One year later, he’s clearly still a work in progress. His rawness remains his most enduring quality. It’s impossible to peel away the imprint of that lanky, grinning 18-year-old from Greece getting onstage at the 2013 draft and enveloping David Stern’s hand in his own massive paw. We all watched Giannis grow up here, we watched his family grow up, we watched him go through impossible heartbreak and genuine joy. From his first electric dunks on the court, we watched him surpass every significant basketball milestone we realistically had. His talent was so white-hot, it melted our frigid, cynical Bucks fan hearts. His game was effervescent without the most basic of tools: a jump shot. So much so, that I used to hose myself off every time Giannis would pull up and hit a 19-footer. There won’t ever be another player I will ever feel so intimately invested in. That’s probably true for a lot of Bucks fans.
That investment is what drives the anger when the team underperforms. It’s what drives the fear when we see the reckless speculation and fake trade clickbait. It’s what makes it so freaking hard to criticize him, especially when he’s putting up historic numbers. It doesn’t help that he’s such an earnest, lovable goofball. It would be a lot easier if he were an ass. But, we’ve been blessed with the rare superstar who seems selfless, uninterested in the media spotlight, and freaky focused on winning.
There are lots of reasons Milwaukee is down 2-0 to the Miami Heat right now. Kyle wrote about plenty. Bud won’t play his starters enough. The depth suddenly looks like dead weight. They didn’t pay Malcolm Brogdon, and half of their Frankenstein solution has turned into rancid Ragu. Defensive rotations are stumbling over themselves to help one another, or forgetting to help entirely. I get it, and all that is more to blame than Giannis. But this is still Giannis’s team. It will only go as far as he’ll take it. It’s built entirely around his particular set of skills.
Should they lose, the narrative surrounding Giannis will shift further. Not just about him leaving, but about whether he can “get it done.” It will be insufferable. I’ll hate it, I don’t want my Giannis to have to deal with that unfounded slander. Does it really wipe away every unbelievable aspect of his game? Don’t you know he’s the back-to-back MVP?! He’s only the third person to win DPOY and MVP in the same season! His supporting cast is a DUMPSTER FIRE! Fred VanVleet turned into a fireball! Jason Kidd wouldn’t even let him shoot threes! Kidd coaches like a toddler!
We can, and will, defend him to the death, but please, Giannis, for the sake of our collective sanity as Bucks fans, I have one simple request:
Can you please get it done?