There is a compelling reason to pay attention to the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs this season — Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Greek Freak, as he is affectionately known, is threatening basketball as we’ve come to know it — both in competition and in the intangible understanding of how it’s played. His physical dominance has helped him to carve out a unique spot in the athletic world. Watching him sail across the court in a handful of strides is one of the greatest pleasures you could hope to experience across the professional sporting gamut in 2019.
So it was in the Milwaukee Bucks’ opening playoff game in the series against the Detroit Pistons just under two weeks ago. The first quarter had barely warmed up when 24-year-old Antetokounmpo collected the ball after a scramble off his own backboard and in just three dribbles executed his lay-up and drew a foul between two defenders.
Such ruthless assertion was reminiscent of the last time the Pistons came to town. Antetokounmpo faced Blake Griffin and, after stalling almost to a standstill, leapt up to dunk over him with almost dismissive authority. The sight of Griffin —himself revered for his iron rule over the paint — reeling tells you all you need to know about the threat Antetokounmpo poses to the NBA’s established stars.
His career has been littered with similar displays of superiority — he won the 2018 dunk of the year, for instance, after he literally jumped over the nearly 2m tall Tim Hardaway Jr.
The league spent the entire season trying to figure out how to stop his unique blend of savvy ball-handling and physical power and is evidently still failing.
Fast forward to the third quarter of that first game in the playoffs and Pistons centre Andre Drummond was reduced to the kid on the playground who storms home with his ball. He shoved Antetokounmpo to the ground after his own massive frame was dominated in the paint, quickly earning himself an ejection. The one-sided flow of the game, which ended 121-86, was clearly too painful to bear.
The opener set the tone and Monday night confirmed the Pistons would be brushed aside in a sweep. Griffin’s fitness was ultimately a non-factor — his young rival commanded an outfit more driven and in-sync. (To be fair to Griffin, his supporting cast is not exactly stellar either.)
Antetokounmpo needed an average of only 28 minutes on the court across the series to effect that outcome. That’s been the story this year. His average game time is at a career low, but every important metric is up. Points, 27.7; rebounds, 12.5; assists, 5.9 — everything he has done well, he is now doing better.
His offence has put him in contention to be named MVP (most valuable player) but it’s his overall play that may secure it for him. Unlike his main rival for the award, James Harden, Antetokounmpo could just as easily claim the defensive player of the year gong. He’s been immense going in reverse — averaging 10.3 defensive rebounds a game. It’s no coincidence the Bucks had the best defensive record going into playoffs.
That he would put in work at the unglamorous end should be of no surprise considering his career choices. Since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left Milwaukee for Los Angeles in 1975, the city has come to be seen as one of the most undesirable to play in and its team has duly suffered. Antetokounmpo is on a mission to change that and is on course to carry them to new heights.
“His versatility is something that I think has improved each and every season,” the legendary Scottie Pippen said after he named the Bucks talisman as his preferred MVP. “Not many players can be as dominant in the NBA. A lot like Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal]. When they touch the ball, they’re going to cause problems.”
Incidentally, Shaq himself rates he’s no longer deserving of his “Superman” moniker and bestowed it to the hero of the new generation. “He’s better and that’s why I gave up my Superman title to him.”
The Freak was not born a beast the same way a player like LeBron James was. In his rookie season in 2013, after coming in at 15th on the draft, he averaged just 6.8 points. A year later he was up to 12.7 and then 16.9.
He’s forced himself to periodically improve. Every time he steps back on to the court in Milwaukee he looks stronger and more determined.
“He’s got the length of KD [Kevin Durant],” teammate Pat Connaughton said of him recently, “but now he’s at the point where he’s got the strength of LeBron — or at least he’s on that trajectory. And that speaks volumes about his work ethic and his desire to be the best that he can be. Because not a lot of guys with that talent work that hard.”
This is not to say that his extraordinary ability hasn’t been apparent for quite some time. What’s different now is that it’s reached a level that puts him in contention for a ring. The Bucks are arguably the biggest challenge, alongside the Rockets, to the Golden State Warriors’ ambitions of completing the “three-peat” — three consecutive championships — they crave so much. As the only side to complete 60 wins pre-playoffs, the intent has undoubtedly been declared.
After languishing in the lower echelons of the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee enter the second round of the playoffs this year for the first time in almost two decades.
Antetokounmpo’s battle with the Warriors extends to the philosophical, too. His play harkens back to a time before the “Splash Brothers” of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry ruled the league with three-pointers.
Today, the perception has become that you can’t emerge as an elite player unless you can regularly sink from deep. So what if you’re a skyscraper with the strength of an ox? Under-the-rim play is just not as profitable anymore. Even a ridiculous athlete like James uses the distance shot to keep his totals at the pinnacle of the sport.
Again, here comes Antetokounmpo to challenge preconceptions. The 2.11m tower of muscle is somehow able to force his way through without the aid of being able to duck outside the arc or fake a perimeter shot. That raw strength is boosted by his confidence to block and dunk on anyone regardless of reputation. He’s a godsend to sections of the NBA fanbase that have grown tired of Harden’s flopping to the floor on the slightest challenge to his jumper.
It all goes back to Antetokounmpo’s inexplicable ability to perplex opponent and pundit alike with his ever-changing approach.
“Is he a budding Magic Johnson — albeit with more athletic ability?” Marc Stein asked in The New York Times in 2017. “Is he the next LeBron James — only blessed with much more size and length? Can we call him a fully fledged point guard now? Is it more accurate to say he’s more of a point forward? What, exactly, is he?” No one in the time since has been able to answer that question. It’s a conundrum that is worth tuning into to be the first to answer.
Regular NBA fans have enjoyed Antetokounmpo for years, but now their secret is out.
For so long, James has been the gold standard of what we consider greatness in the NBA. Antetokounmpo is indisputably leading the new generation lining up to gun for his crown. The Greek Freak is headed for the world stage. Try not to gawk.
Select playoff games as well as the finals can now be streamed on NBA Africa’s YouTube channel