James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are unconventional rivals. Unless they meet in the NBA Finals, Harden’s Rockets and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks will face each other only twice this season. They don’t match up positionally, and their unique playing styles make it seem as if they’re participating in entirely different sports. (Giannis’ requires stilts.) They might as well live on separate planets, but, luckily for us, they’ve bridged the great divide to engage in some rather saucy beef here on Earth.
In an interview with Harden last week, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols brought up something Giannis said while selecting players in the All-Star draft. During that televised event, the Bucks forward passed on selecting Harden, joking, “I want somebody that’s gonna pass the ball.” (Charles Barkley had, moments earlier, referred to Harden as “the dribbler.”)
Harden was not amused.
“I average more assists than him I think,” he told Nichols. “I don’t see what the joke is.”
Here’s where I may be able to help. The joke is that Harden is the talismanic, ball-dominant star on a team that makes the second-fewest passes in the league. To include the fact that he’s averaging 7.3 assists per game—which is more than Walker (5.0) or, for that matter, Giannis (5.8)—would have stepped on the punch line. It’s not a side-splitter, by any means, but Harden wouldn’t even concede that it’s a rib-tickler. Instead of chuckling, the 2018 MVP took a shot right back at the 2019 MVP.
“I wish I could be 7 feet, run, and just dunk. That takes no skill at all,” Harden said. “I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that any day.”
I personally wouldn’t be offended if someone said that I make everything look easy because I’m so preternaturally talented. However, in a league that often traffics in perceived slights, Harden’s jab is a genuine insult.
Giannis acknowledged the feud ahead of Milwaukee’s game on Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, saying, “I’m not that type of guy. I never try and take stabs. … I’m just trying to to my job, which is win games, and then go back home to my family and my kid.” NBA MVPs: just like us. (Well, those of us who can dunk and have kids.)
In just 27 minutes of action against the Thunder, Giannis had 32 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists. He was his usual dominant self … or so it seemed. During a scoring burst, the reigning MVP pulled off a few nifty moves and unleashed a tricky fadeaway jumper—the kind of thing someone who isn’t a 7-footer must do in order to score.
Could it be that Giannis has decided to forgo his usual superhuman feats to prove Harden wrong? Is he donning a kryptonite cape just to make a point? Is he Harrison Bergeron–ing himself? Maybe, but he’s still dunking over people with relative ease.
After the 133–86 blowout, Giannis defended his playing style. “My game is not just power for sure. I came in when I was 18, I was 180 pounds, so to power through big guys was kind of tough,” he said. “I try to work on my game, midrange shots, 3s, being able to screen-and-roll faster, and make the right pass. It’s hard to drive full speed and try to make the right pass to the corner.” Let’s fact-check that:
Hmm, that still looked pretty easy.
While Giannis may say that he’s unbothered by Harden’s comments, he continued to play like an MVP scorned on Sunday. In Milwaukee’s win over the Charlotte Hornets, he scored 41 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. At times, he even resorted to using skill.
Since Harden’s slight, Giannis is averaging 36.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, and at least 3 “Oh no, please don’t insult this man ever again” plays per game.
Meanwhile, with the beef fresh in our minds, Harden also had a chance to go against stereotype during a nationally televised game this weekend. The Rockets played the Boston Celtics on Saturday, and the guard had to work hard for every shot. He went 7-24 from the field for 21 points—not great, but his scoring skills have never been in doubt. Giannis had dinged his passing ability, so it was time for Harden to prove that he could dish it as well as he takes it. The results were, um, mixed.
Nevertheless, Harden had 8 assists (that wasn’t one of them), and the Rockets won 111–110 in overtime.
The immediate evidence leads us to believe that both players are wrong. Harden can pass, and he had slightly more assists than usual this weekend. Likewise, Giannis looks to have achieved basketball transcendence in addition to the gift of wingless flight. Clearly, this was just one big misunderstanding.
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