Four decades from now — and, my goodness, it’ll be the year 2061 when 40 years have passed — people who love basketball will talk about this performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo with the reverence reserved for the greatest efforts from the sport’s greatest players.
Those who were not alive in 1980 to see a rookie Magic Johnson transform himself from point guard to center, subbing for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and slapping 42 points and 15 rebounds on the Sixers in a Game 6 clincher — they’ll have this Giannis masterpiece. They’ll have been watching at home on television, or in a bar or on the lawn outside the Fiserv Forum or, for the fortunate few, in the arena. Or they’ll be one of those people who’ll claim to have been in the building, even if it’s a fib.
They’ll recall that Giannis scored 50 points — 50! If they’re truly students of the game, they’ll also recall that he became one of just seven people to ring up 50 points in an NBA Finals game, every one of his predecessors a certified legend of the game: Bob Petit, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo is on that list — and fits comfortably in this esteemed company.
He is on that list because he needed to be. Giannis did not score 50 because it was flashy or cool, and certainly not because he is the sort to hog the spotlight or basketball. He scored 50 because if he had scored fewer, then the Bucks would be planning for their trip back to Phoenix rather than celebrating the franchise’s first NBA title since 1971, claimed with a 105-98 Game 6 victory Tuesday night over the Suns.
In a game that was harrowing until 45 seconds remained, Antetokounmpo scored nearly half of Milwaukee’s points: 47.6 percent to be exact, the fourth-highest percentage any Finals player produced of his team’s points. He scored 13 of the Bucks’ 28 points in the final period, 20 of their 35 in the third. That’s 33 points in the second half, overwhelming a mountain of game pressure and the defensive efforts of the Suns with his dynamism, his skill, his will and a suddenly unerring touch from the free throw line.
“I want to develop a time machine, that I can go back to my rookie year to win Rookie of the Year,” Antetokounmpo said in the postgame news conference. “And after I’ve won Rookie of the Year, I’ll have won it all.”
Beyond the 50 points, Antetokounmpo shot 16 of 25 from the field, 17 of 19 from the line, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots. This was a comprehensive destruction of every defender Phoenix put in front of him: Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and the unfortunate guards who occasionally got switched onto him.
“He’s just the ultimate competitor, the ultimate winner,” coach Mike Budenholzer told ESPN. “He guards every position. His understanding of what it takes for us to be great defensively — there’s a lot of guys that won’t lay it on the line like he does at that end of the floor.”
This Milwaukee team destroyed so much of the nonsense that has been peddled over the past two decades regarding how to build an NBA team, regarding what is possible.
Market size? Milwaukee ranks 37th among U.S. metropolitan areas. That may be an obstacle to signing the best free agents away from other teams, but the Bucks were able to keep their own stars, which meant having extraordinary talent and continuity.
Tanking? The Bucks have exercised one single-digit NBA Draft pick since 2009. The average draft position for the seven players who got serious time in the clincher was 26, only Giannis coming to the team through that process.
Blowing it up? We hear that silliness so often when a team experiences regular-season success but fails to advance in the playoffs: that teams should chuck it all and start over. The Bucks won more than 70 percent of their games in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, but failed to reach the Finals either time.
That’s frustrating, for sure, but it’s also the history of the NBA. The “Bad Boy” Pistons came close to beating the Celtics before finally breaking through. Michael Jordan’s Bulls came close to taking out the Pistons before at last winning a championship.
These Bucks did not have quite the same regular season as their two predecessors, but they came back from 2-0 down against the Nets and the Suns and surged from a 2-2 tie against the Hawks to win the final two games of the conference finals.
Antetokounmpo was selected with the 15th overall pick by the Bucks in 2013, a relative unknown except to those who closely follow the European game. As astonishing as his game tape was, however, the pick was widely derided. Several blasted the team for passing on Miami’s Shane Larkin. Bleacher Report declared Giannis wasn’t months away from being ready for the NBA, but “years away.” He started 71 games and averaged 12.7 points for a .500 Bucks team in his second season.
Khris Middleton was selected at No. 39 overall by the Pistons in the 2012 draft after three seasons at Texas A&M, but after a nondescript rookie year there, he was fortunate to be traded to Milwaukee and found a home. He and Antetokounmpo have been teammates since, blossoming toward stardom simultaneously and making the decision to remain in Milwaukee a few years back.
“He pushes me every day to be great,” Middleton, who finished second on the team with 17 points, told ESPN.
“I wanted to do it here in the city,” Antetokounmpo said after being handed the Finals MVP trophy. “I wanted to do it with these guys. So I’m happy. I’m happy we were able to get it done.”
He did so much right in this game, on this night. But he might have been a little generous with that “we” stuff.
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