The novelty of Giannis Antetokounmpo as the “Greek Freak,” a raw, teenage global basketball prodigy has long passed. His performance this postseason has elevated him to the status of unquestioned superstar, ending the argument as to whether his substantial individual accolades, including back-to-back NBA MVP awards (2019 and 2020), five All-NBA selections (three First Team), Four All-NBA Defensive Team honors (three First Team) and the distinction of being only one of three players in league history to win MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year award in the same season, joining Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994), can translate into lifting the Bucks to a championship contender.
In winning the 2020 MVP, Antetokounmpo became just the third player ever to be named most valuable player twice before turning 26. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James are the others. The pattern of placing himself in special company is distinct. Yet Antetokounmpo’s most gratifying achievement is still ahead. His Milwaukee Bucks hosted the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the NBA Finals last night (Wednesday) down 2-1. A loss would put the Bucks in a perilous 3-1 deficit. A win would extend the series to a Game 6 next Tuesday in Milwaukee regardless of what happens tomorrow in Game 5 in Phoenix.
Antetokoumpo is a historically remarkable player. But some blurry-eyed watchers of basketball still poke holes in his game. They myopically criticize the 6-11, 250 pound athletic wonder for being far less aesthetic than other authentic transcendent players like James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard.
But Antetokoumpo is more of a hammer thrower than springboard diver. He will never receive the style points rightfully credited to the wondrous Stephen Curry. Yet there is still poetry to his power as he dribbles unstoppably downhill, long striding before extending one arm like Stretch Armstrong for a finger roll or rising for a thunderous dunk. On the next possession, Antetokounmpo will back down an opponent who’s at his mercy before flicking a right-handed jump hook from 10-feet or lofting a 12-foot baseline turnaround that’s near automatic.
And when teams send help, which they always do, or construct what is known as a wall in basketball vernacular, a fortress of bodies designed to keep Antetokounmpo from attacking the basket, he has displayed skillful passing, kicking the ball out to the perimeter or hitting a cutter for a shot at the rim.
“You have to take it as a compliment,” said the 26-year-old Antetokounmpo of the Suns’ deployment of the wall after posting 41 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in the Bucks’ 120-100 victory in Game 3 on Sunday. “You always have to find the fun factor…It is a compliment that there’s gotta be three people in front from stopping me (from) getting into the paint…But yeah, I hate it.” The strategy didn’t slow down Antetokounmpo in Game 2 either. He scored 42 points on 15-22 shooting in 41 minutes but the Suns prevailed 18-108. His consecutive 40-plus point games in the Finals on at least 60 percent shooting puts him alongside Shaquille O’ Neal as the only two players to attain those numbers.
It has become common for Antetokounmpo to put himself in statistical categories with the game’s all-time greats. A championship is all that’s missing on his resume but it may not come this season. The Suns’ superlative point guard Chris Paul is still chasing his first after 16 years in the league, a glaring reminder that Hall of Fame credentials do not guarantee a title.
Nevertheless, as long as he maintains good health, Antetokounmpo has many more prime years remaining. The bet here is sooner or later he’ll get to experience the feeling of being a champion.