Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo Graduates From Hypothetical to Mythological

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JULY 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 20, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, without a doubt. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Finals MVP trophy looks comically small in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands. We didn’t need to actually see this to believe it—most items look like sight gags in his grasp—but no one else in the world was going to hold that piece of statuary after the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns to become NBA Champions on Tuesday, 105–98. Giannis was every bit the protagonist of the 2021 NBA Finals before Game 6, but his 50-point grand finale veered into mythological territory. Giannis and the Argonauts. The only difference is that, in myths, the giant usually loses.

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How does one score 50 points in a Finals close-out game? We now have two examples. The St. Louis Hawks’ Bob Pettit put up 50 against the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 1958 Finals, and he did it by doing what scorers did back then: get close to the hoop, make shots, and hit free throws. (His achievement happened to come against Bill Russell, however, so it wasn’t quite as simple as I may have made it sound). Giannis followed a similar blueprint, albeit in an era that is supposedly hostile to interior dominance. He went 16-for-25 from the field (1-for-3 from deep) and played whack-a-mole with the Suns’ rearguard all night.

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He added 14 rebounds and 5 blocks, but the most surprising aspect of Giannis’ historic Game 6 came at the line. He hit 17 of 19 free throws, a Steph Curry–like performance from a guy who went into the night making 56 percent of his freebies during the playoffs. “Don’t let nobody tell you what you can or cannot do,” he told reporters after the game. He was speaking generally about the power of self-belief and how it fueled his unlikely journey from Athens to the NBA, but he quickly pivoted to acknowledge his sudden mastery of the game’s most understated procedure. “People told me I can’t make free throws. I made my free throws tonight! And I’m a freaking champion!”

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Giannis famously entered the league as an unknown entity, a lanky teenager who played minor league ball in Greece. The Bucks selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft not knowing what he would become, just that it could maybe be something special one day. As he grew and developed, the conventional NBA wisdom suggested “He could be unstoppable if …”

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He could be unstoppable if he learned how to shoot.

He could be unstoppable if he developed more post moves.

He could be unstoppable if he played with someone better.

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He won MVP awards in 2019 and 2020, but early playoff exits in back-to-back years seemed to reinforce the hypothetical nature of his game. He was subjected to criticism from his peers in ways you don’t really see anymore in the NBA.

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The world was waiting for him to add something, but little from this odd, truncated 2021 regular season hinted at what was about to happen in the Finals. Giannis became unstoppable. There would be no more “ifs.” He played his game, and nobody could do anything about it.

This was one of the most impressive Finals performances in NBA history. He averaged 35.2 points (on 61.8 percent shooting), 13.2 rebounds, and 5 assists per contest. The greatness was evident not just in aggregate but also in singular moments of unforgettable brilliance. The Block. The Alley-Oop. And we mustn’t forget that Giannis’ appearance in the series was far from a given after he suffered a gnarly knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals. Him simply suiting up was supposed to be impressive—what the heck do you call what he did in the actual games?

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This was a unique performance both stylistically and situationally. As Giannis noted after Game 6, he won his championship with the team that drafted him, a franchise to whom he committed his future last December by signing a major extension. He earned the right to talk a little trash.

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He had help, obviously. Jrue Holiday was brought in during the offseason to provide a consistent defensive presence on the perimeter and the Bucks were able to rely on Bobby Portis to inject a little wide-eyed mania off the bench. Khris Middleton carried the team in the two games Giannis missed against the Hawks and played the role of clutch scorer to Horry-esque perfection throughout the postseason.

They clicked into place around their star just as things clicked into place for Giannis himself. Now that he’s shown he can be unstoppable, it’s up to the rest of the league to figure out their own “ifs.” Given that he’s only 26 years old, they’ll have plenty of chances to experiment.

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