During the Bucks’ second-round series against the Nets, I was having my doubts about more than just this Milwaukee team, which is now in the midst of its first NBA Finals since 1974. I had my druthers about Giannis Antetokounmpo, its star and the city’s basketball savior, which seems silly to say for a two-time MVP. I don’t think I was necessarily buying into national narratives about him but I was starting to crystalize my own opinions which had formed during the bubble, particularly in the Miami series.
I questioned whether he was a star capable of leading a team to a title, let alone an NBA Finals berth. For two years he was stymied by well-planned, wall-like opposing defenses and let down by teammates who couldn’t make open jumpers, but I still thought most of the blame had to be placed squarely on him. The problem was not so much about opponents or his own teammates, it was between his ears.
His free throw troubles began in earnest in 2019—I even recall seeing signs of it during that regular season—entering that fateful Eastern Conference Finals series against Toronto, when he dipped from a 69.2% FT% playing Boston the round prior to 58.3%. He shot 9/12 from the line in the first two games of that series, then 2/7 and 6/10 once games moved to Toronto, where Drake was permitted to troll him on the court. The drop was nearly as precipitous in 2020 between rounds one and two, going from 62.5% to a Whitesidian 53.7% versus Miami. Against Brooklyn in June, it cratered to a (DeAndre) Jordanian 48.3%. This year the NBA zeitgeist has prattled on endlessly about his free-throw routine, many fans and talking heads seeing it for the first time in a marquee playoff series (after we’ve watched it nervously for months), taking joy in the incessant loud-counting and beseeching the NBA to enforce the ten-second clock though conveniently ignoring other free throw transgressions like opposing lane violations.
Of course, issues ran deeper than just at the charity stripe. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled here and elsewhere (mostly elsewhere) about his poor decision-making and shot selection in the opening games of that Brooklyn series, again as if national pundits were seeing it for the first time (many probably were). It wasn’t strictly about ill-advised, early-shot clock pull-up jumpers in years past, though. It was more about headstrong barrelling into paint areas packed with opponent defenders, easily able to strip the ball from him or pick off his pass that always came too late and/or off-target.
As these problems compounded for a second year in 2020, I was becoming resigned to the fact that for all his wonderful attributes, Giannis might not have what it takes upstairs to win a championship. Of course, he was 25 years old at the time, and many stars didn’t get their first ring until later in their 20s. Plus, there are really only four players in the NBA who have proven over the past ten years that they can lead a team to a ring: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. I hoped his moment would come, but this year I had to ask after the Bucks went down 0-2 to Brooklyn: would it ever happen? It didn’t look likely to happen this postseason and seemed less likely than it did even a year ago. I wasn’t the only one who thought so either.
Enough of this doom and gloom. In the middle of that Brooklyn series, Giannis had the latest in his line of many breakthroughs, and it seemed to almost be a choice he made. The box scores may show fewer threes, the shot charts may show more shots in the paint, and most importantly more points. But in their three wins from Game 4 on, it wasn’t just that he scored 30+ in each which propelled the Bucks into the Eastern Conference Finals, it was how Giannis decided to play. Within himself, in control, and focused. Not as though he was trying to prove to the world that he was as good as Kevin Durant, a player Giannis has long admired. He played his own game, restored the mean-mugging confidence we love to see, and he played more flawlessly as a result. This is why the Bucks managed to come back and win that series against all odds.
Armed with a new lease on this postseason, Giannis was all business against Atlanta, rattling off three largely outstanding games by punishing a Hawks defense that lacked any ability to thwart him. Yet even after scoring 30+ for the 7th time in 8 games (he had 25 in the other game) the story around him had nothing to do with his excellence. It was still about the free throws and other negative clowning because it’s more fun to tear a guy down than prop him up, even when it’s someone as likable and with as amazing a backstory as Giannis. Check out this screenshot I took of House of Highlights’ YouTube page after the Bucks took a 2-1 lead on Atlanta thanks to 38 from Khris Middleton and 33 from The Greek Freak (where is the love, HoH?):
After a very slow Game 4 start, he appeared to be entering takeover mode after halftime. We all know what happened next, adding injury to insult. However, those years of relentless strength training in the gym—a place the Bucks seemingly have had to beg Giannis to leave—plus the team’s stretching and recovery regimes meant that a terrible-looking sequence left him practically unscathed. The fact that his knee was structurally sound in the aftermath will never cease being amazing and surprised even Giannis himself, but it is not luck. He and the Bucks spent years preparing his body to withstand such an injury, and among all the plaudits he should receive during this postseason run, this cannot be omitted.
After his teammates secured the East’s crown from the Hawks—who were still pretty outmatched by a sans-Giannis Bucks—basketball’s summit was closer than ever before. With his status uncertain until mere hours before Game 1, though, it was anyone’s guess how he would look when he eventually made his Finals debut. But the player we saw against Brooklyn, the latest evolution of Giannis, was not the player who stepped onto the floor on July 6th in Phoenix. Even though he had just 20 and 17 in his first game back, mind you. We saw an even better version.
In a Game 2 loss, not enough people were talking about his 42/12 performance, where he shot 15/22 from the field (only 3 misses inside 20 feet) and 11/18 from the foul line. He asked out of the game very early in Game 3 at the 8:30 mark of the first quarter, maybe to calm himself down, but upon returning just over two minutes later etched his name deeper into Finals lore as he embarked on a 41/13/6 night.
Giannis’ latest leap in the Finals now finds him among the company of NBA legends, players many would consider among the top ten to ever play the game. Many have seen the graphics comparing him to Shaq, LeBron, and yes, even Michael Freaking Jordan. In case you haven’t: Giannis is now the just second player ever to put up 40 and 10 in back-to-back Finals games, joining O’Neal. He’s in the company of many other all-timers too. Only four other players have ever put up 40 points in consecutive games and they’re all (or will be) in Springfield, all with rings: Jordan, James, Rick Barry, and Jerry West (he did it twice!). This is the first time in his career he’s scored 40+ in back-to-back games. What a time to save it for.
That Game 3 statline of 41/13/6? Only Shaq and Magic Johnson (also in his Finals debut) have ever done that in a Finals. 40/10/5 has happened a bunch since 2000, accomplished by Shaq twice, LBJ FIVE times, Durant, and Jimmy Butler. Unlike those superstars, though, Giannis had just a single turnover in his entry to the list, the only player ever to do so.
Want more? He had 30/10/5 after three quarters on Sunday, joining LeBron, MJ, and KD as the only players ever to do that in a Finals. He had 28 points in the paint on Sunday too, which is only bested by Jordan and LeBron over the past 25 years. In Game 2, his 20 third-quarter points were the most by any NBA player since MJ did it in 1993, coincidentally also against the Suns. His 104 points over his first three career Finals appearances is bested only by Hall-of-Famers Barry, Allen Iverson, and Willis Reed.
This kind of domination bodes well for the remainder of the NBA Finals, as does his recent improvement at the line: he’s 31/47 from the line this series after just 3 games of high volume attempts (12 FTA for Game 1 and 17 in each of the next two). We can go on until we’re blue in the face rattling off superlatives for these past couple of games. But if this doesn’t make you one of the best three players on earth, what does? If he wins a ring, how is he not the best? Even without one, he has a strong case. This is rarified air that is new to Giannis, even as a two-time MVP, reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and three-time All-NBA First Team elected. It indicates that yet again, he has ascended to an even higher plane of basketball mastery.
All the internet clowning and “he has no bag” comments look worse and worse by the day, not that they ever looked like anything but terrible takes. I don’t care that they are down 2-1. Let’s appreciate this. We have seen similarly strong efforts in series losses (LeBron James’ 2015 Finals comes to mind) that became a part of NBA lore. Regardless of whether the Bucks win this series, it is now eminently clear: Giannis is not just a superstar, he’s one who can lead his team to a championship. He plays for the Bucks and will for many years to come. Never forget what he’s doing now and how fortunate we are to be watching him do it for our favorite team.
He may be back here soon, but even if he never returns to the Finals, consider other universally respected (certainly more than Giannis) NBA stars today who have gone just as far. Jimmy Butler isn’t quite one of the ten best players in the league and has never been close to an MVP, but he took the Heat to this same place in 2020. Chris Paul finally got there in his 16th year and on his fifth team. Those are two of the most loved players in the league, at least by their peers. Giannis has done as much, if not more by in year eight at age 26.
After those names? James Harden hasn’t been here. Damian Lillard hasn’t either. Luka Doncic hasn't yet. Neither has current MVP Nikola Jokic. Nor has Joel Embiid. Anthony Davis needed LeBron to get him there. Unless Chris Paul bests him in the next week, none of the aforementioned players really can be mentioned in the same breath as Giannis thanks to these last few games. Giannis is now much more comparable to that elite four I mentioned earlier: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant.
Oh right, and he has done this merely 12 days after we and (and he himself) thought he’d sustained a catastrophic knee injury. Will Giannis’ name be mentioned among some other legendary athletes like Reed and Kirk Gibson, whose postseason injury comebacks are venerated in an almost supernatural sense? It will probably take a ring—and with it a Finals MVP—for that, but this appears to be peak Giannis, and it’s somehow higher than either MVP campaign that came before.