Midsummer Musings: The Finals Arrival of Giannis Antetekoumpo
A legendary Game 4 block proved his defensive prowess, and it might just create the momentum Milwaukee needs.
After the Phoenix Suns won both of their home games in the NBA Finals, taking a commanding early 2-0 lead in the series, the Bucks’ title expectations seemed to be on the ropes. Cue the “Suns in 4” jokes. Unable to withstand consecutive offensive onslaughts from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, even with a dominant 42-point, 12-rebound, four-assist performance from Giannis Antetekoumpo in Game 2, the Bucks looked cooked.
Then it was Game 3. The first game of the series on their home floor in Milwaukee. And the Bucks came to play. The Greek Freak proved his dominance once again on the biggest stage in the sport, notching his second consecutive game of at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, accompanied by another six assists this time. The Bucks’ elite perimeter defenders stifled Booker, holding him to just 10 points, and the Bucks responded to their series deficit in force, notching a 20-point blowout victory.
In Game 4, on Wednesday night, the win would prove more difficult to attain. Booker flexed his superstar muscle, torching the Bucks for 42 points on 28 shots, but the Bucks showed their resilience on their home floor. Giannis had a somewhat more understated game, not breaking the 30-point threshold. But the little bit of everything that he did for the Bucks — combined with his second star Khris Middleton going shot-for-shot with Booker and notching 40 points of his own ,a playoff career-high — helped the Bucks eke out a 109-103 win, evening this series at two games apiece.
Along with Giannis establishing himself as the best player on the floor in this Finals matchup, the narrative around these past two games has been all about the Bucks’ defense. On their home floor, Jrue Holiday, Middleton and P. J. Tucker showed off their chops on that end of the floor, holding the Suns’ elite perimeter players to generally worse performances than they gave in Games 1 and 2 — but it was Giannis’s individual defense that took center stage in these past two games.
In the closing minutes of Game 4, the Bucks were clinging tightly to a narrow two-point advantage. Booker drove the ball towards the hoop, pulling up around the free throw line to throw a lob to a wide-open Deandre Ayton, a play that should have been a guaranteed two points and tied the game in the final minute.
Nobody told Giannis that, though.
With one foot on the free throw line as that lob was thrown, no human could have reasonably been expected to make a defensive play on the finish at the hoop, particularly when the finisher is a seven-foot beast of a center like Ayton is. Fortunately for Bucks fans, the Greek Freak is no mere human. He took two hard steps towards the rim and then used his otherworldly physical and athletic gifts to rise up and get a hand on the ball as Ayton attempted to slam it home. Blocked by Antetekoumpo! A couple of clutch Middleton jumpers later, and the Bucks walked off their home floor with an essential win, avoiding going down 3-1, a deficit that only one team has ever overcome in the NBA Finals — and that team had LeBron James.
That block all but sealed the win for the Bucks and simultaneously provided a resounding endorsement for head coach Mike Budenholzer’s defensive system. In the Bucks’ defense, Giannis essentially plays the “free safety” role. Coach Bud trusts his other perimeter defenders to stay in front of their assigned matchups, sticking Giannis on a lesser offensive player to allow him to play help defense, racking up blocks from the weak side and using his length and athleticism to be disruptive in passing lanes and wherever he’s needed on the floor.
It was that system working to perfection, thanks in large part to the other Bucks’ stalwart defense, that allowed Giannis to be in position to pull off that massive block late in the game.
That block meant even more than just that, though. With the play, Giannis earned his signature Finals moment. Fittingly, it came on the defensive end — an area of the floor that undoubtedly gets less shine than offense, but that Giannis dominates almost more than he does with the ball in his hand (see: his Defensive Player of the Year award from last season).
Giannis has been a force in the regular season for years now, stacking up two MVP awards, the aforementioned DPOY and five All-NBA team selections (including First-Team honors in each of the past three seasons) — all before his twenty-seventh birthday. Even as he has matured into one of the most dominant and successful players in the league, the knock on his play has been that it doesn’t translate to the playoffs. Given time to adjust and gameplan for him and the more physical, punishing defense played in the playoffs, Giannis’ “run and dunk” style is too easy to mitigate.
Now, two wins away from his first NBA title, Giannis has put those doubts to bed. He has shown throughout these Finals, and particularly in these past two games, that he can undoubtedly be the number one option on a championship-level team and that he is ready to win one, right now.
The Finals, however, are far from over, and as I wrote two weeks ago, Phoenix is not a team to be trifled with. As the adage goes, a series doesn’t really start until the road team wins a game. Both teams have been perfect in front of their own fans, and now the Bucks will head back to Phoenix with the series essentially starting from scratch.
There’s a long way to go before we crown an NBA Champion this year, but in their two wins at home, one blowout and one nailbiter, Giannis and the Bucks proved that they are built for this stage, that they can win under any condition and that — for whoever ends up taking home the title this year — it’ll be one hell of a fight to get there.