For all the screenwriters and movie producers licking their chops at the better-than-fiction possibilities of “The Giannis Antetokounmpo Story,” the closing seconds of Milwaukee’s first-round exit delivered a moment that would get axed from the script for being too cliché if it hadn’t actually happened. Here was the greatest Greek basketball player ever—in the most pressure-packed moment of his young career—falling victim to his Achilles heel.
With apologies to Russell Westbrook, James Harden and everyone else, the most important development of the 2016-17 season was Antetokounmpo’s dramatic ascent. The 22-year-old forward entered training camp as a potential first-time All-Star and heads into the off–season as the future face of the post-LeBron James Eastern Conference. Over the last six months, Antetokounmpo played every position, led Milwaukee in every meaningful statistical category, pulled in nearly one million All-Star votes, carried his franchise to the playoffs despite season-altering injuries to Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, and established himself as the best player on either team in Milwaukee’s first-round series with Toronto. In a just world, Antetokounmpo would be recognized as the league’s Most Improved Player in a unanimous vote. It’s very, very difficult to be this good at basketball, but it’s damn near impossible to get this good at basketball so quickly.
Nevertheless, the man who can bound 50 feet in two or three dribbles and can practically dunk from his tip toes, still has a hole in his game. A glaring one. And, as Thursday night’s Game 6 proved, a fatal one.
With less than 10 seconds left and Toronto leading 90-87, Antetokounmpo surveyed the court and found himself confronted by Kyle Lowry in single coverage. The shot clock was turned off, the home crowd was on its feet in anticipation and Milwaukee’s other four players were spacing the court to a comical degree, with three of them bunched up by the right angle to allow Antetokounmpo plenty of time and room to work. When the clock his six, Antetokounmpo rocked into a dribble move, as if to set up the type of do-or-die three-point attempt that franchise players crave, the type of shot that Kyrie Irving hit to win a championship, the type of shot Paul George demanded he be allowed to take just last week.
In the moment of truth, Antetokounmpo didn’t pull the trigger, opting instead to drive into an uncontested paint and toss home a dunk with just 3.5 seconds left on the clock. Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, speaking for the entire basketball viewing community, immediately questioned Antetokounmpo’s unwillingness to let it fly.
Maybe, with his season on the line, he wanted to find a more efficient solution than a contested three-pointer when he knows he’s a 28% three-point shooter. Maybe he didn’t fully trust his legs after logging more than 47 minutes. Maybe, as he told reporters later, the quick-two dunk was the back-up plan all along but he simply lost track of the clock. “We were looking for a three,” he said at the podium. “I was supposed to go a little bit earlier because I had a lane to go. I didn’t [go at first] because we were looking for three, then I decided to go. I was supposed to go earlier … so we could have more seconds on the clock.”
Antetokounmpo’s decision, or indecision, forced Milwaukee to take a quick foul. After the two ensuing free throws, the Bucks were stuck inbounding from the baseline and trying to rush up the court because they were out of timeouts. Antetokounmpo struggled to free himself from his defender, Tony Snell panicked and threw away the inbounds pass, and Milwaukee’s season ended with a whimper. Antetokounmpo, exhausted from leading the Bucks back from a 25-point deficit, took a seat on the bench and stared ahead in disbelief.
“It’s just time and score, being in that position,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said afterwards. “Understanding he can’t wait, he’s got to go to score it, we’ve got to find a three, or he’s got to shoot a three. … He hasn’t been in that situation, so this is a lesson learned for him.”
In Game 6 on Thursday, Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 34 points, shooting 13-of-23 from the field. He put constant pressure on the rim: 11 of his 13 field goals came from within the restricted area, on all manners of dunks, lay-ups, finger rolls and hook shots. This season, he shot a whopping 71% from inside three feet and led all non-centers with 194 dunks. Against the Raptors, he shot 54% from the field overall and 66% from the restricted area, fantastic numbers. Indeed, James is the only reasonable comparison point when it comes to breaking down a defense and then finishing efficiently.
2017 NBA Playoffs: Shooting in the Restricted Area
LeBron James, Cavs
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
James Harden, Rockets
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
But here’s the kicker: Antetokounmpo took just 10 three-pointers total in the six-game series. While James, Harden, Westbrook and All-Star lead options like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry all rely to varying degrees on their outside shot, Antetokounmpo couldn’t and didn’t.
To see a skilled ball-handler like Antetokounmpo mash deep into the paint with such frequency and force is to wish that every chucker would settle a whole lot less often. At this level, though, there must be a balance. Antetokounmpo has a realistic shot at being the best player in the game by 2020, but he needs a passable jumper to get there, and he knows it. “The two specific things I want to work on this summer,” he told reporters, “are getting stronger and being able to knock down open threes, open shots. That’s it.”
It’s frighteningly easy to imagine Antetokounmpo, a year or two from now, stepping into the same look he had against Lowry and burying it to win a playoff game. James shot 32% from deep in his age-22 season before peaking at 41% in 2013 with the Heat. George was a 30% three-point shooter as a 20-year-old rookie before knocking down 39% this season. Jimmy Butler hit two just three-pointers during his entire rookie season before connecting on 37% this year. Even Kevin Durant, blessed with a smooth and effortless stroke, needed multiple seasons to stabilize his three-point shooting percentage on a high volume of attempts. Yes, snipers like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson came out of the womb swishing along at 40%, but just about everyone else must work up to respectability beyond the arc.
If Antetokounmpo delivers on his off–season goal, there’s nothing stopping the Bucks’ 13th ranked offense from jumping into the top eight or 10. The possibilities are endless. In Game 6, Kidd flashed an ultra-small lineup—featuring Antetokounmpo at the five with four shooters—which hopefully will make regular reappearances down the road. The offensive ceiling for such a configuration is off the charts, in much the same way as Draymond Green-backed Death Lineups have slain opponents for three straight years and James-led spread looks have put up eye-popping efficiency numbers in Cleveland this season.
As much fun as it would have been to see James and Antetokounmpo go head-to-head in the second round, Milwaukee’s defeat at its star’s hand may well prove to be the best-case scenario for fans of the game. How many times will Antetokounmpo run over that final play in his head this summer? How many shooting drills, early in the morning and late at night, will that moment of hesitation fuel over the next five months?
For a fantastically-talented, maniacally-competitive superstar with four years of steady progress to his name, a head-on collision with his biggest remaining shortcoming should provide the perfect flavor of motivation.