Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Latest Rite of Passage? The Superstar Who Needs Help

Antetokounmpo put together an all-time performance in Game 2 against the Suns. The only problem? His supporting cast did not help much.
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PHOENIX — A mere nine days before Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s right knee bent so far inward toward his other knee, he thought he would miss a whole year of basketball. The physics of that injury still don’t quite make sense. Giannis’s leg looked like it was suffering from a video game glitch, not participating in a natural, human action. And yet less than 10 days later, he played 40 hard-fought minutes in a Finals game, brutally forcing his way to 42 points (adding 12 rebounds and four assists for good measure) in an all-time performance.

The only problem? The Bucks lost for the second time in a row. And now Milwaukee is headed home facing an 0–2 deficit against a relentless Suns team consistently punishing its opponent’s mistakes.

Through two games, despite returning shockingly soon after his gruesome injury, Giannis is averaging 31.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in his first NBA Finals. It’s the type of superstar performance fans have eagerly waited to see from Antetokounmpo on the game’s biggest stage. His teammates, however, are in danger of wasting an incredibly gutsy and inspiring effort. Up until this postseason, Giannis was the star who needed, on some level, to validate his greatness by making it to the championship round. After completing that rite of passage in dramatic fashion—including a Game 7 win on the road against Kevin Durant—Antetokounmpo is now enduring another one: The superstar who needs help.

If the current trend of this series holds, Giannis could join a list of players who lost the Finals even after putting up seemingly superhuman numbers. LeBron James of course comes to mind—he averaged a 30-point triple double in a losing effort in 2017, as well as 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists a night in the 2015 loss to the Warriors. More recently, Stephen Curry averaged 30.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists during Golden State’s 2019 loss to the Raptors. The ur-amazing effort in a championship defeat famously belongs to Jerry West, who won Finals MVP in 1969—the first year the award was given out—in a loss to the Celtics. (West averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 boards, and 7.4 assists in that series.)

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) moves in for a basket ahead of Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder.

Antetokounmpo was impressive in Game 1 for someone playing so soon after a scary injury. In Game 2, he was otherworldly without any qualifiers. The Greek Freak carried the Bucks offensively. Over one stretch in the third quarter, he scored 13 straight points for Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s limited range means most of his points come in the paint, where the game is much more physical compared to the perimeter. Giannis is almost literally muscling his way to the rim, where he’s required to finish among a sea of limbs or get hacked and sent to the line.

In 96 minutes of the Finals, the Bucks are a plus-four in 75 minutes with Antetokounmpo on the floor. They are minus-21 in 27 minutes with him on the bench. The burden is clearly on everyone else to pick up the slack. And it’s not hard to figure out who needs to do more.

Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s other two stars, combined to shoot 12 of 37 from the field Thursday, hitting only two threes to boot. Holiday and Middleton have both had special moments during this playoff run. And the Bucks wouldn’t be in the Finals without their stellar play on both ends of the floor. But the Finals are a magnifying glass, and Milwaukee failing to capitalize on a masterpiece from Giannis falls heavily on their shoulders. Holiday and Middleton are currently shooting 36.4% in the series.

“I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn't make,” a reserved Holiday said after Game 2. “I know me personally, there were a couple layups there that I usually make that kind of rimmed in and out. Had some good looks.”

“You always give credit to the defense,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Holiday’s and Middleton’s off nights, before adding, “There's probably a few looks that I think they got to go in when you're playing against a good defensive team.”

Holiday’s performance was dispiriting enough that he began to draw unfavorable comparisons to ex-Buck Eric Bledsoe, the guard Milwaukee so desperately wanted to upgrade from before the season they sent control of four first-round picks to the Pelicans in exchange for Holiday. Jrue is now converting 41.7% of his field goals during the playoffs, including 28.8% from three, both significant declines from his regular season averages. He’s been aggressive against the Suns, but the shots he was hitting in the last round aren’t falling now—frequently including layups.

“At the end of the day, if there's a game that you're 3 for 12 or whatever the case might be and you can rebound the ball or get a steal or do something else to help the team win, that's what it's all about right now,” Giannis said of Holiday’s rough start, offering encouragement moving forward. “I know he's going to be there when we need him the most and I don't worry about it. He's a great basketball player. He's played great all year and he's going to continue to play great for this team.

khris-middleton-bucks-suns

While Holiday and Middleton are getting paid like secondary stars—thus earning them a little bit more scrutiny—they aren’t the Bucks sole problem. The entire supporting cast has shared in the struggle. Excluding Giannis, Milwaukee connected on a paltry 38.0% of its field goals Thursday. And through the first two games of the series, non-Giannis Bucks have shot just nine free throws—four in Game 1, five in Game 2. There’s simply not enough balance offensively for Milwaukee, which contrasts starkly with the Suns. All five Phoenix starters were in double figures in Game 2, and six different players drained at least two threes.

Meanwhile, the Bucks aren’t in a great position to ask Giannis to do even more. Budenholzer said Antetokounmpo wants the team to lean on him hard, and he obliged by playing 40 minutes in Game 2, a five-minute increase from the series opener. But Antetokounmpo also had to be removed briefly in the fourth after experiencing cramps. Giannis’s conditioning isn’t fully back after his injury, and he’s already playing himself to exhaustion. The solution can’t be to simply up his minutes in the wake of his injury. (After the game, Giannis said he trusts Bud when it comes to deciding his playing time, saying he wouldn’t lobby for more.)

Fortunately for the Bucks, they still have time to right the ship. The defense, even after giving up 20 threes in Game 2, appears to be in a better place, especially if Milwaukee can clean up some issues when it comes to overhelping off shooters. In both fourth quarters of the series, the Bucks have made a run to tighten the game considerably, squandering opportunities to ratchet up the pressure on Phoenix often due to their own mistakes. The Bucks’ role players should get a boost as the series shifts back to Wisconsin. And Giannis’s could benefit from the extra day of rest before Game 3, even if he’s already playing at an MVP level on a knee that almost certainly isn’t 100%.

”Nothing Giannis does surprises me anymore,” Pat Connaughton, perhaps the lone other Milwaukee player to acquit himself well offensively in Game 2, said after the defeat when asked about Antetokounmpo putting up 42 so soon post-injury. “He has the nickname ‘Freak’ for a reason.”

Ultimately, whether or not the Bucks are surprised at what Giannis has been doing is irrelevant. More importantly, they can’t let it go to waste. 

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