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Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Seizing His NBA Finals Moment

Forget the labels. The superstar has been sensational in the Finals and his legacy is still taking form.
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MILWAUKEE — The ball was there for the taking, but a pesky swarm of Suns kept denying Giannis Antetokounmpo what was rightfully his. First Devin Booker, then Mikal Bridges and finally Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder—an irritating, flailing web of arms and palms and fingers—until finally Giannis had had enough.

He ripped the ball from Johnson, sprung skyward and slammed it through the rim with malice, punctuating it all with a left fist pump and a snarl.

It was just one basket among 14 for Antetokounmpo on Sunday, one third-quarter sequence in a surge that fueled the Bucks’ 120–100 victory in Game 3 of the Finals. But also, it was everything. It was a burst of sheer determination, an outright refusal to surrender a single inch or a single possession—or the opportunity to make this Finals a real series.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo

For three straight days, the Bucks had to wallow in a 2–0 deficit, amid proclamations of the Suns’ superiority and renewed doubts about every Bucks frailty. A loss Sunday would have effectively ended the series, and hardened those doubts. About the supporting cast being too soft. About Antetokounmpo being more Robin than Batman (more Pippen than Jordan, etc., ad nauseum). About his two MVP awards being, well, suspect.

So he attacked and snarled and bullied and bulldozed until he had 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and raucous victory, the first Finals win of his young career. Suddenly, the comparisons involved a very different list of names.

The 103 points Antetokounmpo has scored in his first three Finals games? Only Rick Barry, Allen Iverson and Willis Reed scored more. The 40-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in consecutive Finals games? Shaquille O’Neal is the only other to have done it.

By the end of the evening, Antetokounmpo was batting away attempts to compare him to Michael Jordan, who put up 40-plus points in four straight games in the 1993 Finals (as it happens, against Phoenix).

“I’m not Michael Jordan,” he protested. “I’m not Michael Jordan,” he repeated twice more.

Nor is he Pippen—not that comparisons to a top 50 Hall of Famer should be viewed an insult. Nor is he Robin, who surely deserves more crime-fighting credit than he gets, too. And no, he’s not Michael, either. None of it applies, in part because it’s nonsensical to slap definitive labels on a superstar who’s just beginning to write his postseason legacy.

But the hot takes fly quickly in this 24/7 embrace-debate era, and there are only so many chances to seize and shape your own narrative. This is, after all, Antetokounmpo’s first Finals, and it’s been frankly dazzling so far.

Through three games, he’s averaging 34.3 points, 14 rebounds and a .625 field-goal percentage—and that’s despite modest production in Game 1, when he was still recovering from a hyperextended left knee. Remember, just a week ago there were doubts he’d play at all. Now he’s putting up averages that, if they hold, would place him alongside O’Neal and Elgin Baylor.

“I don't even know how he’s even doing it, man,” said teammate Bobby Portis. “Most of the time when guys do that, they come back and ease into it, or they come back and they're kind of timid and whatnot. He's still just going out there and playing the same way, like he never did that.”

Portis added, accurately: “I just think whoever gave him the nickname the Greek Freak did a great job of that, for real.”

On this night, Antetokounmpo even made his free throws, going 13-for-17 to a periodic serenade of “MVP” chants—a welcome change from the taunting counting (“one, two, three … 10, 11, 12”) by Suns fans, who mocked Antetokounmpo for his excessively long routine at the foul line. At times, the Bucks faithful hushed to allow their favorite artist to go to work, then exploded for each make.

The comforts of home did everyone some good. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shot better (a combined 14 for 28), and Portis came through for 11 points off the bench. They collectively throttled Phoenix star Devin Booker (10 points, 3-for-14 from the field), kept Chris Paul in check (19 points) and put Deandre Ayton in foul trouble.

Giannis did the rest, bullying Bridges, driving through Ayton and flustering Crowder. He scrapped for every loose ball in the paint, pounced for every putback. He even dished out six assists, his most since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Late in the game, he seemed to be downright toying with the Suns, dancing with the ball along the perimeter, dishing off to Pat Connaughton, then slipping back door for another thunderous dunk and a 25-point lead. He left moments later to a standing ovation.

When it was time for his postgame interview, Antetokounmpo arrived with his toddler son in tow—another perk of being home again. While Daddy talked, his son played in the back of the room with a multicolored minibasketball, letting out the occasional gleeful squeal.

“I feel like I've come a long way,” Antetokounmpo said reflecting on the last few weeks, “just to be able to sit here, being interviewed by you guys, playing in this game, being with my teammates, thinking I'm going to be out for a year, coming back. It's been a long journey and I'm trying to enjoy every single moment of it.”

He added, with considerable earnestness: “I don’t worry about the outcome as much as I want to enjoy the game. I want my teammates to enjoy the game. And I know that by enjoying the game, I’m going to compete as hard as possible.”

Legacies are written over years, not weeks, and this one is still being reshaped, recast and reassessed with every game. We can’t know what the final version will be—just that every chapter is its own thrill. We should enjoy it as much as he does.

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