Stakes Isn't High: The Bucks, Giannis, and a New NBA
I watched Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals hermetically sealed in my apartment. It was not an appropriate event for a noisy sports bar or a house party with cans of beer balanced on couch arms. The volume may have been muted. With eleven seconds left and the Cavaliers holding a three-point lead over the Warriors, LeBron James was fouled while trying to punch a dunk through Draymond Green’s brainstem. He missed the first of the pair. I looked down and my hand was trembling.
In real time and in hindsight, the moment was an obvious endpoint. It finished a redemption arc for James that included his abandonment of Cleveland and concessionary return. It determined if he toppled Michael Jordan as the greatest player ever, at least in the minds of anyone who was still undecided. It swerved the future of a Golden State team that was both beloved and, at that point, the best in history. We love a sport consumed by legacy, and every storyline crackled through the same lightning rod.
Since that game, NBA titles have felt flat. The Warriors added Kevin Durant and won two anticlimactic, uncompetitive championships in which they lost a grand total of one game in the Finals. The Raptors unseated them after Durant and Klay Thompson suffered terrible injuries. The Lakers’ win in the COVID Bubble seemed perfunctory and diminished in the middle of a pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
At first blush, the Bucks’ victory appears to fall into that same category of “nice job, whatever.” They were seeded third in the Eastern Conference, had the seventh-best record in the NBA, and escaped the second round by the narrow margin of Durant’s toenails against a Nets team that was minced by injury. In the Finals, Milwaukee dropped the first two games of the series in front of Phoenix fans who all resembled Kyrsten Sinema or K2 entrepreneurs. Three Bucks starters could not hit the side of a barn from beyond the arc. We were subjected to endless visions of coach Mike Budenholzer, befuddled in a sweaty polo, looking as if he had just killed a mob boss’s son in a car accident.
If you wanted to lean into the idea that titles are meaningless, there was a disruptive appeal to a Phoenix chip. They were a non-entity, neither young nor old, neither underachieving nor fraudulently good, neither a glimpse of the future nor a refutation of the present. The Suns’ quirks—hucking midrange jumpers, playing small but slowly, patching up a top-ten defense without any big men who were particularly good at it—appeared to reflect personnel, not a worldview. They represented nothing. But the team made sense when wired together by Chris Paul’s elderly meticulousness and the gentle warmth of Monty Williams, coach and empath. Their tragic histories, on the court and off, bestowed the Suns with emotional gravitas. It was a nice story, even if we did not care down to the marrow.
But at some point, the idea of a Phoenix title became…cheap? This was a team that had missed the playoffs for ten straight years and posted a winning record only once during that span. They had blown lottery picks on Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson, then selected Deandre Ayton ahead of blossoming stars Luka Dončić and Trae Young. As subversive as it might be for a randomized team without any collective history to seize the ultimate prize, we were almost tricked into rooting for Robert Sarver’s struggle franchise. Plus, for the rest of our lives, everyone would have to hear how Devin Booker, your favorite walking bucket’s favorite walking bucket, had tapped into the dark bloodline of Mamba Mentality.
Right here is where we could juxtapose Phoenix with Milwaukee. We could extol the morality of a small market team that treasured continuity, convinced a superstar to stay with the organization who drafted him, went all-in during their window of contention, and trusted the embattled coach who figured out how to unleash the best version of an unorthodox generational talent. We might get into how the Bucks updated a successful (but vulnerable) dork-ball model by bringing in well-rounded support staff like Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, and P.J. Tucker, the three of whom combined to spend nearly 100 minutes on the floor in the closeout game. Yes, sure, all that is great.
But this title was about Antetokounmpo. In consecutive seasons, he has now won MVP, MVP, and Finals MVP. His battering performance in the lane against the Suns drew comparisons to Shaquille O’Neal’s playoff run from exactly two decades ago. While the numbers are fun to measure up, the Lakers center bludgeoned his way through frontlines that included Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace, Vlade Divac and Chris Webber, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and, in the Finals, Dikembe Mutombo, the 2001 Defensive Player of the Year. During this postseason, Antetokounmpo’s domination often felt as if it was occurring in relief.
When previous Milwaukee teams stumbled in the playoffs, it happened against teams with credible solutions for guarding Antetokounmpo. The 2019 Raptors had Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol; the 2020 Heat had Bam Adebayo. In the opening round of this postseason, Antetokounmpo faced Miami’s strongman again. According to NBA’s tracking data, he went 4-15 from the floor in the 59.2 partial possessions in which Adebayo was guarding him and had a field goal percentage of 45.0% for the series.
In the three playoff series since then, Antetokounmpo laid waste to Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Phoenix. He averaged 31.8 points on a 59.6% field goal percentage, posted 12.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, and left coastal villages in smoking ruins. The Suns, in particular, were laughably unequipped to handle an inexhaustible paint scorer. Ayton was a thin, third-year center who is in the bottom quarter of centers defensively, Dario Šarić was out with an ACL injury, rotational power forwards were all midsize floor-stretchers, and Frank Kaminsky is Frank Kaminsky. For the entire Finals, it looked as if the Suns were trying to ward off an ax attack with their bare hands.
There are only a few people on the planet who can check Antetokounmpo one-on-one. That fact is a testament to his awesomeness and the linchpin of Milwaukee’s gameplan. But following their encounter with the Heat, the Bucks did not run into any of those large men on their road to glory. Doc Rivers tied the Sixers’ shoelaces together with deeply predictable ineptitude, the Lakers and Jazz were dinged up, and the Warriors—even if Draymond Green still has coolant sloshing in the radiator—did not escape the play-in bracket. By the NBA’s numbers, Antetokounmpo spent most of his time after the first round guarding Blake Griffin, Jae Crowder, Ayton, Jeff Green, John Collins, and Bruce Brown.
For all the talk about injuries and asterisks, you can only beat who steps in front of you. Antetokounmpo was not obligated to win his first chip by plowing through a gauntlet of the NBA’s most brolic interior defenses. But it was a virtuoso performance without a foil. Despite his huge statlines, few viewers left the Nets series believing that he had outplayed Durant or that the Bucks would have defeated a healthy Brooklyn team. The Hawks and Suns were helmed by two varmints—however wonderful Young and Paul are—who are regarded more as scheming grifters than ubermenschen. Styles make fights, but Antetokounmpo spent his postseason beating the dogshit out of lads beneath his weight class.
Antetokounmpo’s real victory was over criticism that has accompanied his blunt-trauma game. He carried the first title to Milwaukee in fifty years by doing what he does better than anyone else: getting to the rack, attracting double-teams, kicking out passes every now and then, ripping down boards, and swatting shots as a helpside defender. We demand perfection from our superstars right up until the moment it becomes clear that imperfection does not disqualify a player from greatness. Fortunately, the type of people who wail about Antetokounmpo’s lack of a reliable stepback jumper are the same ones who subscribe to the idea that rings trump all else.
In some ways, it was nice that Antetokounmpo’s warts were visible. Despite phenomenal free-throw accuracy in Game 6, he shot 58.7% from the line during the playoffs. He went 13 of 70 from 3-point range—a heady 18.6%. He can not really dribble, has basically one move and one countermove, and everyone roared at the clip of him indecisively attempting to drive against Griffin. He deferred late-game opportunities to teammate Khris Middleton, one of the NBA’s best midrange threats, which infuriated pundits who believe that True Hoopers need to take the final shot.
Even with all of that, Antetokounmpo’s domination was undeniable. In an era when capable perimeter creators—players with bags, as they say—have become the most inflated and easily-obtainable commodities, he is the most valuable and scarce building material: an anomaly. Normies do not win titles.
What can we, those who are relatively uninvested, do with the Bucks’ tension-free championship? Are we content to dutifully respect greatness and bask in the glow of an immense talent at the height of his brilliance? Is it just good vibes? Maybe, as fans, we need to reconcile that megaevents like Jordan hitting a buzzer-beater or James’ chasedown block only happen a few times in our lives, and everything else is just building up to the moment when it can happen again. Antetokounmpo winning his first title is not an endpoint, it is a new beginning.
If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. It arrives on October 19th on Abrams books and is available for presale now!