The Giannis Finals
Giannis Antetokounmpo has the chance of a lifetime to take the NBA Finals away from Chris Paul and the Suns
On the eve of possibly clinching the first NBA championship for the Milwaukee Bucks in 50 years, and changing the way people see him for the rest of his life, Giannis Antetokounmpo did not appear to rank the Phoenix Suns as his foremost concern.
"Everybody's been tested, right?" Giannis asked the assembled media on Monday as he settled in for another must-see interview session.
The sentiment, even if he was just going for the robust laughs that he got, was understandable. A season that will be remembered as the NBA's most complicated ever to stage is dribbling to a conclusion this week amid a fresh groundswell of COVID-related apprehension.
Bucks forward Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis' older brother, was abruptly forced to enter the league's health and safety protocols and miss Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Chicago's Zach LaVine was denied a seat on USA Basketball's flight to the Tokyo Olympics because he, too, has been ordered into isolation away from the rest of his team. One suspects that Adam Silver will be a very relieved commissioner if the league can get through Tuesday's Game 6, and Thursday's Game 7 if necessary, without incident.
Let’s shelve all that for now, though. We can (and will) talk for years about all the challenges and disruptions, coronavirus- and injury-related, that infiltrated the NBA’s 75th season. With Milwaukee needing just one home victory to finish off the Suns and establish Giannis as a champion, this is an occasion to focus on and revel in an extremely watchable Finals.
The Giannis Finals.
There is still time for that sentiment and the series to go awry on Giannis and Co., but I don’t think it will now. Not after Jrue Holiday played the two-way game of his life in Game 5 in Phoenix to join Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in forming a devastating Big Three that, at the most opportune time, looked superteam-y for a night. Some 217 days after Antetokounmpo signed a five-year, $228 million contract extension to stay with the small-market Bucks, I expect them to weather Tuesday night's added pressure heaped on by a Fiserv Forum sellout and the expected 65,000 fans right outside the arena in what they call the Deer District to win Game 6 and claim Milwaukee’s first championship since 1971.
What can be said with even greater certainty is that these Finals have belonged to Giannis. He has co-opted Chris Paul’s opportunity to rewrite a painful playoff legacy and established himself, at 26, as the league’s most discussed and analyzed force — not unlike what happened in December when we all awaited Antetokounmpo’s decision to extend his contract or play out the season before heading to free agency. You'll recall that something similar happened a few months later at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, when Giannis worked on some ballhandling with his infant son right before tip-off and then shot a spotless 16 for 16 from the field to win All-Star MVP honors.
A few months farther down the road, Antetokounmpo has been absolutely Shaq-sized in his first Finals — dominant at both ends on the floor and in the interview room, too.
Despite missing the last two-plus games of the conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks thanks to that frightening hyperextension of his left knee in Game 4, Antetokounmpo enters this Finals Game 6 averaging 32.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists against the Suns while shooting 61.2% from the field. No player has ever hit 30/10/5 benchmarks in the Finals with a shooting percentage in the 60s, making you forget how often Antetokounmpo was passing out of his drives early in the series, seemingly unconvinced that he could jump with conviction off that left leg.
His passionate, revealing and occasionally vulnerable answers at the interview podium after games and on off days have been almost as compelling, turning those sessions with reporters into bonus theatre. That's something else Shaquille O’Neal used to do in his Finals prime, albeit more with outrageous humor rather than Antetokounmpo’s earnest storytelling.
Milwaukee’s serious flaws, most notably Giannis’ shaky free-throw shooting and its clunky halfcourt execution, remain evident, but I’ll say the same thing about the Bucks if they can muster one more win in two tries as I wrote about the Suns when they completed their injury-aided surge through the West: Don’t wait for any sort of apology if they complete this comeback from a 2-0 series deficit.
They won’t care one whit about the record nine All-Stars not named Giannis who missed at least one playoff game because of injury this postseason. You absolutely have to win a championship, by any (legal) means necessary, when you invest nearly $570 million in three players as Bucks ownership did with Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday. The time to strike is now — especially if you expect the Nets to be able to keep Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor together next season for more than 13 regular-season and playoff games.
It has to hearten those same team officials, so close now they can taste it, that the Bucks have already hushed many of the toughness questions that hounded them (and especially Giannis) over the past two seasons. Consider everything they’ve overcome on this ride, starting with the collapse of their planned sign-and-trade acquisition of Bogdan Bogdanović back in November. Just in the past two months they've had to cope with Donte DiVincenzo’s season-ending ankle injury, having to face Miami and Brooklyn in the first two rounds and then having to close out Atlanta in the conference finals without Antetokounmpo. The Bucks also hurdled all that despite constant whispers in coaching circles that Mike Budenholzer would be dismissed, and potentially replaced by Rick Carlisle, if the Bucks went out early.
Antetokounmpo's rejection at the rim of Deandre Ayton trying to finish a Devin Booker lob late in Game 4 is destined to be recorded as one of the greatest blocks in league history, emblematic of how much he gives his team defensively on top of all the gaudy numbers. The same sort of treatment awaits Holiday's late strip of Booker in the lane and subsequent lob to Antetokounmpo for a dunk at the other end late in Game 5 that, according to the league, generated more than 50 million views across various social media platforms.
As Antetokounmpo closes in on vindication, after hearing for so long that he lacked the fortitude or the offensive refinement to deliver on the biggest of stages, I find myself rewinding to a trip to Milwaukee in October 2017. It was my first big feature assignment for The New York Times. My pitch to a skeptical sports editor: Giannis might hail from the European metropolis of Athens, but he genuinely loves unfashionable Brewtown, and I need to go there to try to find out why.
“I’m a low-profile guy,” Antetokounmpo told me then. “I don’t like all those flashy cities like LA or Miami. I don’t know if I could be the same player if I played in those cities.”
Who would dare dispute his sincerity now?
The Bucks have incurred only one home defeat in these playoffs, dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to Atlanta. After that series, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk reflected on his time with the Golden State Warriors, revisiting media claims that the Warriors' first championship of the Stephen Curry era in 2015 was the fortuitous byproduct of injuries to Cleveland's Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
"Yup," Schlenk said of the notion that the Warriors were lucky to win it all. "And I'm glad we were."
The point Schlenk was trying to get across: Every NBA champion, no matter how stacked, needs good fortune along the way. If Booker, Paul and the Suns can't drag this series back to the desert for a Game 7 decider on Thursday, and if that leads you to brand the Bucks as lucky because of the Harden and Irving injuries that compromised Brooklyn in Round 2, or the fact that Durant’s toe on the line ruled out a potential Nets game-winner at the regulation buzzer in Game 7 … fine.
Just make sure, in that scenario, that you don't leave out the part about how Milwaukee, Giannis especially, was both lucky and good.
Lucky and great, actually, in Giannis’ case.
(My) Tweet of the Week
I have a pretty good idea about what I want to do with this section to replace Corner Three. I intend for it to be more personal, like my newsletters from Walt Disney World last summer that featured an "Inside The Bubble" bonus category with "highlights and reflections" from the previous week.
Example: It feels appropriate on this Newsletter Tuesday to pass along here how proud I am to have resisted the urge to watch the screeners I received for the new season of Ted Lasso that officially starts Friday. Too many people cherish this show, so I couldn't bring myself to watch the screeners before we all had the chance.
Yet since I haven’t made a final, final decision on how to best deploy this space, I'm sharing a few of the proposals I’ve received here. And since this is an interactive operation, we will continue to (and always) take suggestions or questions for future mailbags at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Fenton and Jonathan (no last name provided beyond the initials JTS) both proposed a what-if-themed section called "Reframe The Game" (Will) or "Sliding Doors" (Jonathan). It would be a place, they say, to discuss hypothetical rules changes, league structure alterations or potential alternative endings to major events in recent league history — like a look back at what might have happened if Draymond Green had not been suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
L. Jeffrey Lowenstein from Framingham, Mass., pitched a "Play Under Review" section, presumably to dissect controversial calls like the foul on Phoenix's Devin Booker that wasn't called in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, sparing Booker from fouling out at a key juncture.
Nebojša Prijić from Belgrade had several suggestions, most notably urging me to reconvene The Committee (of One) for NBA Power Rankings "on a regular basis." Brian Eason, who said he's been reading me since my Dallas Morning News days (thanks, Brian!), registered the same request. Power Rankings obviously wouldn't come close to fitting in this space, but we'll discuss that subject at length before next season starts.
The Suns are known as a low-turnover team that converts its free throws at a highly reliable rate, which surely contributed to their 12 consecutive wins, spanning the regular season and playoffs, in games decided by five points or fewer. That streak was snapped by Phoenix's 123-119 loss to Milwaukee in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
The 16-point deficit that the Bucks faced after one quarter in Game 5 and then erased represents the second-biggest comeback in Finals history when it comes to first-quarter holes. Boston won Game 4 of the 2008 Finals after falling behind the Los Angeles Lakers by 21 points.
That gem came from my noted Twitter statistician pal @jkubatko, who also passed along that the Suns' Devin Booker is the first player in Finals history to record consecutive 40-point games in back-to-back losses.
Six of the seven coaches hired since the NBA regular season ended are Black: Boston's Ime Udoka, Dallas' Jason Kidd, New Orleans' Willie Green, Orlando's Jamahl Mosley, Portland's Chauncey Billups and Washington's Wes Unseld Jr.
There were only seven Black coaches in the NBA entering the playoffs despite a player pool estimated to be 75 percent Black. They were Atlanta's Nate McMillan, Cleveland's J.B. Bickerstaff, Detroit's Dwane Casey, Houston's Stephen Silas, Philadelphia's Doc Rivers, Phoenix's Monty Williams and the LA Clippers' Tyronn Lue. McMillan began the postseason as the Hawks’ interim coach but received a new long-term contract after leading Atlanta to the Eastern Conference finals.
Philadelphia's Ben Simmons turns 25 today.
After 10 NBA seasons and two more back at his beloved Maccabi Tel Aviv, Omri Casspi has retired at age 33. I will never forget the night in December 2015 that, while I was flying to Israel and completely disconnected from what was happening in the league, Casspi sank 9 3s for Sacramento in an unforgettable duel with Golden State's Stephen Curry that had his whole country (and my phone when I landed) buzzing. Casspi was the first Israeli drafted in the first round (No. 23 overall to the Kings in 2009) and played one season at Maccabi alongside Washington's Deni Avdija, who in 2020 became the first Israeli lottery pick (No. 9).