We could talk about how Giannis Antetokounmpo sent any and all skeptics flying into the stands with his legendary Finals performance last night, but that’s not what this is about. When you grow up on the streets of Greece, selling trinkets for sustenance, who gives a damn what some talking head has to say? This is about a player, a Milwaukee Bucks player, who against all odds, went from stringbean to superstar. He cared not for the traditional, team-up pathways towards success that’s en vogue. He did it his own way, the hard way:
"I could go to a super team ... but this is the hard way to do it, and we did it. We f---ing did it."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 21, 2021
—NBA champ and Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo pic.twitter.com/ni3jG0rOhY
From the first days of his push shot three-pointers to last night’s unbelievable display of two-way domination, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar made for Milwaukee. He came here with eyes wider than his limbs, and has remained a genuine figure through it all. The rarity of someone this candid, this humorous, this joyous, this committed to his craft, this hard-working is something we can never take for granted. Giannis may be a somehwat reserved superstar, but he offers a glimpse into his personality on the podium that goes well beyond the typical pantry of canned answers. It’s shone through in the Finals press conferences, and that personality is what endeared him to us through the triumphs and the pitfalls. And the pitfalls, oh the pitfalls. That’s what makes this taste even sweeter.
Six years ago, young Giannis was helping the Milwaukee Bucks try to lead a historic comeback from down 3-0 against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. After stealing Game Five in Chicago, Game Six loomed with a rowdy Bradley Center crowd waiting. We all know what happened next, a 54-point blowout, punctuated by Antetokounmpo’s tackling of Mike Dunleavy.
Two years ago, Giannis and the Bucks meteoric rise came to a clawing halt against Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors. They ripped Milwaukee’s hearts out in the same fashion Giannis just did to Chis Paul’s Suns. Four straight losses, and the hardest thing to fathom for Bucks fans was how out of sorts Giannis looked in the throes of that contest.
One year ago, we saw similar Playoff struggles for Antetokounmpo. Within the bubble, with all the off-court question marks swirling, the Miami Heat embarrassed this Bucks team in the second round. Giannis made a valiant effort, but ended the series watching from the bench, injured, able only to stew and consider the work to come in the offseason.
Now, the scars bore out success. In Round One, his defense turned Jimmy Butler into a scarecrow. In Round Two, he stood tall against Kevin Durant, stared down an 0-2 hole, and never blinked. In Round Three, he bulldozed through the Atlanta Shimmies before hyperextending his knee and cheering his teammates past the finish line. And in the Finals, he did it all.
The history books may not always remember that this all just happened two weeks after one of the darkest nights in Bucks fandom. But we will. We’ll remember his incredible streak of iconic moments, game after game. In Game One, a game we weren’t even sure he would play, he provided a chasedown block that conjured up immediate comparisons to LeBron:
In Games Two and Three, he put up unimpeachable stat lines with back-to-back 40-point, 10-rebound performances. Only Shaq remained in that company, and his 20-point quarter aligned him with the greatest players of this generation. Then, in Game Four, he showed why his superstardom isn’t defined by merely one end of the floor.
Inside the greatest block in #NBAFinals history. pic.twitter.com/dgOFFCeoQG— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 15, 2021
In Game Five, he tallied an all-around performance with consistent scoring and a persistent attack into Phoenix’s paint defense that was powerless to stop him. Then, The Oop. It wasn’t just about demonstrating his transition fortitude, it was about his sheer force of will. He didn’t have a head start, he just wanted it more, sprinting the floor in leaps and bounds before polishing off a moment that will live on in Finals lore.
Giannis Stretch My Hands. pic.twitter.com/84DYzh4U1g— Esfandiar | Es (@JustEsBaraheni) July 18, 2021
And in Game Six, it all came together for a Finals performance that’s instantly in the discussion of greatest closeout games ever. Michael, Magic, LeBron, Pettit, Duncan; this is the company Giannis entered with his dominating performance from tip to buzzer. But it still feels different with Antetokounmpo, and it all goes back to the beginning. Back before those wide eyes sharpened into a dominating stare.
"In 15-20 years, maybe my number is up there next to Kareem, Oscar Robertson... I hope I'm there." @Giannis_An34 in 2013 pic.twitter.com/XtY9mDrxJm— NBA (@NBA) July 19, 2021
He dreamed, and delivered. We got to witness true greatness on the grandest of stages together, from someone whose story seems like a Greek myth. But that 50-point, 14-rebound, 5-block game just happened folks, and at just 26, the legend can only grow.