BOSTON — After losing Game 1 of his Eastern Conference playoff series with the Celtics and turning in one of the worst performances of his MVP-caliber season, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked how hungry he was to redeem himself and get a win in Game 2.
“Mmm, real hungry,” Giannis replied, playing along with the conceit. “I’m going to get some pasta.”
Beloved for his personality as well as his game, Antetokounmpo was willing to roll with the joke, but only to a point. This is his sixth season in the league and fourth appearance in the playoffs. He’s transcended the novelty of his freakish athleticism to become the most physically dominant player in the game.
No longer possessed of the wide-eyed naivete that endeared him to so many and made him a cult favorite, Antetokounmpo has established himself as a dominant force. With that comes the responsibility of leading his team through the treacherous waters of the postseason.
Therein lies the two essential questions of Milwaukee’s season: Just how good is this team, really? Most importantly, is Antetokounmpo ready to take the next big step of his career.
“I’m just going to be me,” he continued. “I’m going to be Giannis.”
Being Giannis is all about applying pressure. While his perimeter game is still in its evolutionary phase, he has mastered the art of playing downhill and attacking the rim. While his long strides and Connie Hawkins-esque dunks are aesthetically pleasing, Antetokounmpo’s game is almost rudimentary in it’s straight-ahead design.
Only a select few can thrive playing that way. In the modern era of space and shooting, it’s almost inconceivable that anyone can dominate without the benefit of a reliable jump shot. But Antetokounmpo has long rewired our brains to account for his singular talent.
Giannis is very likely to win the Most Valuable Player award and he may add a Defensive Player of the Year trophy to his shelf if the vote breaks in his favor. He and the Bucks have enjoyed a breakthrough season, but until this series with the Celtics, we were left to wonder if all of their success was merely a regular-season creation.
You see, this is less a beginning for the Bucks than an endpoint. With numerous key free-agent decisions looming in the offseason, there are contracts to be settled and salary cap figures to manage. There’s no guarantee that the Bucks we see today will be the Bucks we see next season. And if this is their team going forward, they need to prove that it has the right mix to complement a player of Antetokounmpo’s stature.
Winning a first-round series was validation, but only to a point. Beating a team like the Celtics is a necessary imperative. Many an emerging team has stumbled at this juncture. There are only so many chances when you have a great player, as the unfulfilled promise of LeBron James’ first era with the Cavaliers can attest. This is Milwaukee’s time to make a run and the cold reality of the league is that it’s always getting later than we think.
While they have assembled an impressive array of complementary players, the Bucks will ultimately rise or fall on Antetokounmpo’s broad shoulders. This playoff series has provided a fascinating test case for the player he’s become. For one, his game is more layered than simply slashing to the basket and dunking on everyone in sight. He’s also an adept and willing passer, a ferocious rebounder, and a looming rim protecting deterrent.
Losing Game 1 of this series, in the manner they did, forced the issue. As much as the Bucks said they wouldn’t change anything, the reality was it was time for adjustments. Not just in the tactics and strategy employed by Mike Budenholzer’s coaching staff, but in the approach that Antetokounmpo took to the game.
“I didn’t have a lot of patience,” Antetokounmpo conceded after Game 1. “I was just trying to break through the wall. That’s what I’ve been doing all season and that’s what I’m going to keep doing. But I’ve got to mix it up a little bit.”
In Game 2, Giannis was Giannis with 29 points and 10 rebounds, but this was no one-man show. From the beginning, Antetokounmpo focused his attack on facilitating for his teammates and getting them involved in the action. The Bucks won in a blowout largely because Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton enjoyed their best games of the series.
Back in Boston, Game 3 promised to be different. There was the Garden crowd, of course, and there were the age-old concerns of playing on the road. As the Bucks were reminded constantly over the last few days, they had lost all four games in Boston during last season’s playoff series. That was then, they all said. They’ve moved past that point. Game 3 was time to prove it.
The Celtics started hot and the Bucks were skittish. It was beginning to look like the same old story and if ever there was a moment for Giannis to go scorched earth on the parquet, it was now. Time and again, he lowered his shoulder and attacked the rim, driving right into the crucible of a Boston defense designed to thwart his progress.
This is what the great players must do and Antetokounmpo was rewarded for his aggressiveness with 22 free throw attempts. Giannis lived at the free throw line, much to the frustration of everyone in Celtic green. The key quarter was the third when the Bucks scored 40 points and Giannis recorded eight free throw attempts.
“I mean, it’s inevitable,” Kyrie Irving said. “Guy comes down almost six times in a row and get free throws. What are you really going to do? It’s slowing the game down so the run that you would hope to make in a quarter like that, doesn’t happen. I mean, he shot 22 (free throws) on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. It’s just slowing the fucking game down.”
But this is the reality of dealing with Giannis. He was second in the league free throw attempts during the season, and only James Harden is a tougher player to officiate. Because of his length and athleticism, he draws contact on nearly every play. In Game 1, the calls went Boston’s way largely because the Celtics were the aggressor. They didn’t in Game 3, mainly because they were back on their heels.
Yet, it was another element of Antetokounmpo’s game that attracted the attention of Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “The play that stands out most vividly,” he said. “Is Giannis is at the top of the key and he just flings it to the corner.”
The pass in question led to a wide-open George Hill corner three, and while most of the post-game attention was on the officiating, it shouldn’t have escaped notice that Hill and Pat Connaughton combined for 35 points on 14-for-23 shooting. Or that Niko Mirotic knocked down a bunch of 3’s, limiting the amount of time Stevens felt comfortable keeping his invaluable big man Aron Baynes on the floor.
Middleton, who was largely subdued in the first half, came to life in the third quarter with nine points on just three shot attempts. He finished with a cool 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting along with four rebounds and five assists. It was a typically understated, yet highly effective, Middleton performance.
Make no mistake, however. Game 3 may have become the consummate team effort, but it was through the force of Anteokounmpo’s play that it all became possible. He finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocked shots, a grown man performance if ever there was one.
Even in this era of video game numbers, Giannis’ numbers demand greater appreciation. That line had only been achieved three other times in the postseason dating back to the 1983-84 season in Basketball-Reference’s database.
With Game 4 in Boston, this series is far from over. For the moment, the onus is back on the Celtics, who reverted back to all their old bad habits. We’ll find out a lot about the C’s on Monday.
As for Giannis and the Bucks, this is what it looks like when a player and a team grow up before our eyes. As promised, he was simply Giannis and that has been the difference.
“I didn’t even notice the officiating. I don’t think anybody did. I think that’s the best compliment you can give them.”
Reaction: And thank god for that. The incessant braying about the officials turned this series from the most anticipated matchup of the season into the most annoying. Just play the game, guys.
“If I played barely seeing last game, what makes you think I’m going to sit out Game 3?”
Rockets guard James Harden.
Reaction: There’s no way Harden is sitting out, of course. If anything, Harden doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to weather injuries and answer the call every night out.
“It was a roller coaster. I don’t know if it was as much elation as it was relief. But I’ll take either one.”
Blazers coach Terry Stotts after Portland four-overtime win over Denver.
Reaction: Credit Stotts with the coaching move of the night by inserting Rodney Hood into the lineup for the fourth overtime. Hood’s fresh legs and clutch shooting carried the day. If he keeps this up, maybe they’ll name a mountain after him.
“His coaching style is what it is because of the stuff he’s been through as a person and how he looks at life in general and helps him as a leader and a teacher. I’m excited that he’s back to coaching and walking the sidelines again. Phoenix, their whole organization, got a great leader to step in and kind of take it to the next level.”
Reaction: What stands about Williams is that everyone who comes into contact with him has nothing but admiration for him. Good job by the Suns getting this one right. Been a long time since anyone could say that.
“Those situations are handled way before the time comes. In the summer, when you truly prepare yourself with training and conditioning. When you cheat yourself, you fail in those moments and crash. When you really put the time in, it always comes to light.”
Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
Reaction: Lillard’s offseason work, as detailed in this piece from Ben Golliver, speaks to a recent trend among NBA superstars to combines physical preparation with mindfulness training. This is nothing new, of course. The great players of the past constantly talked about having a mental edge. What’s interesting is that anything having to do with the mind was once considered taboo. Now mental preparation is an accepted, and open, practice. That’s progress.
Consumable NBA thoughts
The other semifinal in the Eastern Conference has laid bare a number of stark truths. The Sixers look like the team we thought they might become, while the Raptors look like the team we’ve always suspected they would be once we got to the postseason. This is a series about stars and Sunday’s Game 4 will tell us a lot about everyone involved.
Joel Embiid is a monster.
Not many big men in the modern era can impact a game on as many levels as Embiid when he’s right. His Game 3 performance — 33 points on 9-for-18 shooting — was one for the ages. The Raptors, for some odd reason, elected to challenge Embiid at the rim and while he was credited with only five blocks, his presence effectively turned the Raps into a jump shooting team. If Embiid’s knee is feeling good, then the Sixers are every bit as good as they think they are. That word — if — is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
Where have you gone, Marc Gasol?
It was only a month ago when we were all praising the trade that brought Gasol to Toronto. His playoff performance has been so subdued that we’re left to wonder if Toronto would have been better off with Jonas Valanciunas, to say nothing of Delon Wright. Given a chance at a do-over, my guess is Masai Ujiri wouldn’t have changed a thing. But then he expected Gasol to impact this particular series a lot more than he has. For Toronto to have any chance, Gasol has to simply do more.
The Kawhi Leonard question is coming due.
How many players would you take before Leonard if you were building a franchise from scratch? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant would likely go 1-2, but after that you’d probably take Leonard, a lockdown defender with an unstoppable one-on-one game. That’s about where Kawhi was rated before the weirdness in San Antonio and he’s proven that his game is where it once was before his thigh injury. Kawhi will have his choice of franchises to play for this summer, and while no one has any idea what he’s going to do, the Raptors sure aren’t giving him much reason to stick around.
Jimmy Butler was made for this.
Count me among the many who were completely turned off by Butler’s forced exit from Minnesota. His actions not only necessitated a trade, but also cost his one-time benefactor Tom Thibodeau both his jobs. There’s now a trail of collateral damage left in Butler’s wake in two cities and anyone wishing to sign him long-term has to be aware of his penchant for destructiveness. All that said, you want that dude on your side in the postseason. It’s an interesting philosophical conversation if he’s worth all the trouble, but in the playoffs the answer is a resounding yes.
Kyle Lowry, on the other hand ...
It’s not that Lowry hasn’t had his moments in the postseason. It’s just that he’s had way more than his share of complete duds along the way too. His no-show in Game 3 set the tone for a Raptor team that looked directionless and hopelessly overmatched. The pendulum can swing mightily between games, but Sunday’s contest is shaping up to be yet another referendum on his star-crossed tenure.