Have you ever seen the movie ‘8 Mile’?
If you have, you know that the movie turns 20 years old next year (which is a completely different type of reality check), and you also know that it’s a dramatized autobiographic about the rapper Eminem. The film itself is merely okay, and rap as a genre (or Eminem’s music specifically, which has not aged well) may not be your cup of tea, but there’s a scene from the movie that seems particularly applicable to the current state of Bucks fandom.
Ask any casual sports fan the question “who is the most important person to the Milwaukee Bucks?” and the odds are that answers will coalesce around one name: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The unknown prospect, the rising star, the Greek Freak, the two-time NBA MVP, the “crown has returned from overseas.” He is many things to many people, and in the wake of the Bucks’ disastrous Game 2 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the list of descriptors for Giannis is growing.
The list goes on, and grows uglier by the entry. For years, the Bucks and their fans have found ways to highlight the good that Giannis brings, his feats of excellence, scenes that make you marvel at just how human he is. To be clear, losing in the NBA playoffs does not invalidate any of that positivity. He may have a Greek passport, but Milwaukee is Giannis’ home, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
It may also be the case that Giannis Antetokounmpo is incapable of leading the Bucks to the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee’s failures over the last three postseasons are not the fault of any one person. Blame can be apportioned more to some than to others, but basketball is a team sport and advancing in the playoffs is a group effort. It takes a team to win, and there are plenty of concerns about head coach Mike Budenholzer’s tactics, the front office management of Jon Horst and ownership’s strategic decisions, co-stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and their failure to share the burden, and the inconsistent contributions of the supporting cast. These are all important issues, and solutions to those issues could be enough to turn things around, even in this series.
But the time has come to fully face the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo may be not as great as we thought. I, myself, only two years ago, went on record and stated that Giannis had a chance to put his career on a trajectory that would land him amongst the best of the best, and that this season, this series, was his chance to define his legacy. We knew all along that the Nets, the best offense in the history of the NBA, was going to score points, and that the Bucks’ best hope was to harness the power of their similarly-powerful offense, with Giannis as the rightful focal point of that attack.
Last week, Adam asked if Giannis could dominate the Nets enough for a victory. Last night, at least, Giannis answered the question with an emphatic “no.”
They say that a picture says a thousand words, and this picture tells the tale of Giannis’ failure to impose his will on an opponent that, as recently as a month ago, was not capable of stopping him. The Brooklyn Nets are many things, but they are not a big team. Giannis was matched up against Blake Griffin – who may have more in the tank than most believed but is still not the stoutest defender – in the first quarter and, rather than force the issue and get to the rim, he enforced a self-imposed embargo on the restricted area. That first quarter shot chart doesn’t reflect any sort of schematic genius on Brooklyn’s part and although their defensive effort was fantastic, Giannis is supposed to be good enough to overcome energy and effort. He wasn’t.
That inability to seize the moment quickly spread to the rest of the team. While Giannis did end up putting some pressure on the basket as the game went on (and spiraled out of control), none of his teammates could pick up that slack. Brook Lopez consistently pivoted into hook shots and fallaway jumpers rather than put a shoulder into his defender to move him off his spot. Khris Middleton continued to try (and fail) to shoot his way back into rhythm from midrange.
The Bucks as a team took only nine free throws (Giannis hit 2 of his 7 attempts, big brother Thanasis hit the other two Bucks’ makes) because they failed to leverage their advantage inside. Oh, but before you cry foul about the lack of fouls called, note that the Nets only took seven free throws.
Game 3 of this Eastern Conference Semifinals series is on Thursday night. More than anything with minutes allocations or defensive rotations or missed three pointers (the Bucks shot under 30% from deep again in Game 2), this game is about Giannis Antetokounmpo. Either he has to show us his true self and take the next step in the Monomyth to overcome whatever adversity is facing him...or confirm that he already showed us his true self on Monday. Maybe the Milwaukee Bucks still lose the series to the Brooklyn Nets, but at least we’ll have Giannis’ answer to the question of the moment: will you capture it, or just let it slip?