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Less than a year after dropping 50 points in a closing game that sealed his Finals MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s follow-up offer has ended.
In a much-hyped Game 7 against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were upset with surprising ease, 109-81. With his co-star Khris Middleton sidelined with an MCL sprain, Antetokounmpo recorded his fifth straight double-double and his second straight 20-20 game. He took 26 shots to get the 25 points from him on Sunday.
But let’s be clear: This is not a defining moment for legacy. It probably won’t even alter the legacy.
Years from now, we may look back on this as a setback on the road to a pantheon career. It could end up being the fuel that pushes him into discussing the 10 or 15 greatest players of all time.
It is worth remembering that Giannis is 27 years old. LeBron James and Michael Jordan won their first titles at that age. No one else in league history had two MVPs, a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year this young (Hakeem Olajuwon and MJ are the only other players to achieve that triple crown at any age).
But details matter, so how should history judge Antetokounmpo’s playoff exit in 2022?
He shot below 50 percent from the field in five of seven games against Boston and finished 45.7 percent for the series, with a true shooting percentage of 51.6. That efficiency for 33.9 points in a playoff series would be fine by many players, but it’s 11.5 points shy of Antetokounmpo’s regular-season mark since the start of 2018-19. He’s also nowhere near the 59.9 he posted in the 2021 postseason.
Against a defense with multiple long, shifting wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as mobile greats like Grant Williams and Al Horford, Antetokounmpo had a hard time finding open shots. In an in-game interview during Game 6, Celtics coach Ime Udoka spoke about the need to show him a crowd. And that’s exactly what Boston did in every series.
Not only did the previous four do a good job of holding off Antetokounmpo on his early drives, but several Celtics smothered him when he was able to get to the paint. By Game 7, Antetokounmpo seemed to be rushing everything, including layups and dunks around the rim that would normally be gimmies.
A year after it seemed the “Giannis Wall” defensive strategy had been resolved, Boston went all-in.
Mo Dakhil @MoDakhil_NBA
I know building a wall on Giannis is important, but you can’t do it at the cost of letting Holiday into a three. Brown also had a long way to go to get to Holiday. pic.twitter.com/NehCss8ZCp
And while there were occasional possessions where he burned them (like the one above), for the most part, it worked.
Mo Dakhil @MoDakhil_NBA
First, GREAT example of building a wall on Giannis. He has nowhere to go but through Williams, then Horford with the big start to Tatum. pic.twitter.com/ZlkQBFSWIC
However, hoping that this is a harbinger of things to come for Giannis and his opponents may be foolhardy.
Sure, build a wall. It may be his best option, but Giannis usually has Middleton to kick him as well. Not only is he one of the best catch-and-shoot options in the game, but he can attack shutdowns against a scrambled defense by Giannis. And he is an underrated midfielder (his 5.9 assists per 75 possessions the past two seasons ranks in the top 60 in the entire league).
We also have nearly a decade of history to suggest that Antetokounmpo will learn and grow from what just happened.
As a rookie, nearly a third of Giannis’ shots were 3-pointers. Over the next several years, he became a downward sight. Coach Jason Kidd even tested him at 1 for much of 2015-16. That laid the foundation for his game. Before his jump to MVP, he bulked him up and became a Shaquille O’Neal-like battering ram around the rim. And this season he just had his best campaign from midrange.
Year after year, add things or improve weaknesses. This summer, you may need to swing the pendulum back a bit to where you were a novice. This certainly isn’t a suggestion that he abandon the game that made him a two-time MVP, but he would benefit from having more range against the few teams that can effectively build “Giannis’s Wall.”
And that brings us to the other reason not to overreact. Everyone would love the defensive versatility the Celtics possess. It’s just not available in abundance, and it can take years to develop the skill and cohesion necessary to defend like Boston does. Udoka is new to the job, but there is a lot of continuity in this list. There may not be another team in the league that can do to Giannis what the Celtics just did.
We can either overreact to that, or we can wait and see what’s next.
He is, without a doubt, one of the most successful 27-year-olds in NBA history. He has a statistical resume that outranks (and maybe even surpasses) some of the greatest players in basketball history.
Earlier this month, Giannis’ numbers since the start of 2018-19 (when he won his first MVP) were boneless against the best four-year stretch of LeBron’s career in a blind poll. Giannis won.
We hesitate to put the feats we are seeing now on the same level as the greats of the past. Alright. But when you remove that potential bias by removing names from the numbers, Antetokounmpo is up there with just about everyone.
The stat line is like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the most assists. The developing midrange game gave him the same 10-foot-and-out 2-point field goal percentage (42.2) as Kyrie Irving and Tyler Herro this season. Leaving aside the effects of the Boston wall, his game inside him is reminiscent of Shaq’s. One on one, there’s really no one who can keep him from the rim. On top of all that, he’s a dominant rebounder and 7-foot free safety who can seemingly be anywhere on individual defensive possessions.
and he is 27 years old.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird won their last titles at 28 and 29, respectively. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t break through until he was 32. Jordan and LeBron clinched their most recent championships at 34 and 35 (and LeBron still does).
In today’s world of instant reactions, social media hits and near-constant discussions about where each NBA star rests on the all-time scale, it’s tempting to react to a second-round playoff loss like the one you just finished. to suffer Giannis.
If the backlash is limited to how Antetokounmpo can grow from this, fine. Anything else is premature.
After everything we’ve seen from Giannis over the first nine years of his career, there’s no telling how high he can climb that ladder.