As Giannis Antetokounmpo slammed and swatted his way to Finals MVP over the last two weeks, he also caught the basketball public’s attention with a quality we don’t usually reserve for NBA superstars.
Antetokounmpo paired his on-floor dominance with a notable earnestness en route to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, becoming the most endearing Finals protagonist in recent memory in the process. Antetokounmpo delivered legendary press conference monologues, marveled at seeing LeBron James courtside and provided not one, but two instant-classic Finals highlights. As the NBA’s grueling pandemic period comes to a close, seeing Antetokounmpo cradle his first championship trophy is a welcome sight.
The 2020-21 season wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable year in league history. The haze of the NBA bubble still lingered over the league as play began in December, with an unusually short rest period leading to some ugly basketball in the early months. James Harden’s pouting in Houston was the first major storyline of the season, and a rash of injuries followed. LeBron James missed 26 games after the All-Star break, only to have Anthony Davis hobbled in the playoffs. Brooklyn’s Big 3 played together only sparingly. Nikola Jokic lost his running mate in April. The Sixers imploded before their potential meeting with Milwaukee, and Kawhi Leonard couldn’t finish the Clippers’ matchup with the Suns. This season has been defined as much by the absences as the on-court play, a natural side effect of cramming two postseasons into just 12 calendar months. But the unusual circumstances shouldn’t detract from the eventual champion. There will be no asterisk attached to Milwaukee’s first title in 50 years. Antetokounmpo’s first Finals MVP doesn’t need any special footnote. This is a deeply satisfying title not just for Milwaukee, but for the league writ large.
Antetokounmpo’s rise from unknown to MVP has been chronicled ad nauseam over the last half decade, though it is worth reflecting on just how unlikely his journey truly is. Antetokounmpo is the furthest thing from a preps-to-pros prodigy, and he was barely visible on the international circuit before he was selected in the 2013 NBA draft. Even reaching the NBA as the son of Nigerian immigrants is a success story in itself. The fact that Antetokounmpo is now the greatest player alive is something out of a novel.
The confetti falling onto Antetokounmpo on Tuesday night was an unlikely scene less than a month ago. Milwaukee’s superstar laid crumpled on the floor in Atlanta on June 29, suffering a knee injury against the Hawks that looked like a potential season-ender. Antetokounmpo holding his leg at the State Farm Center appeared to be another dispiriting image amid a disappointing season, with Milwaukee’s championship odds plummeting by the minute. But luckily for the Bucks, catastrophe was avoided. Milwaukee battled past Atlanta en route to the Finals, and Antetokounmpo returned to the floor in Game 1 against Phoenix. After a playoffs stricken by injury at every turn, a healthy Finals provided a long-awaited sense of normalcy.
We were rewarded with plenty of entertainment over the last two weeks after the injury-laden season. Game 1 of the Finals featured a vintage performance from Chris Paul. Devin Booker tallied a pair of 40-point nights. Jrue Holiday’s steal to clinch Game 5 is one of the top defensive highlights of the century, and Khris Middleton’s late-game genius was on full display when Milwaukee needed it most. But this series will be rightfully remembered for Antetokounmpo’s dominance on both ends of the floor. The two-time MVP finished the Finals averaging 35 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists per game, bulldozing his way past Phoenix’s defense as a sort of new-age Shaq. Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 block on Deandre Ayton will rival LeBron’s 2016 block in Finals lore. His second-half effort in Game 5 may have swung the series. Tuesday night represented another standout performance.
Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 50 points in Tuesday’s 105-98 win, and he often looked like the most comfortable player on the floor in the closeout contest. Antetokounmpo attacked the rim with a contained fury throughout the first half, and he even looked comfortable draining an open three early in the third quarter. Phoenix’s offense kept the possibility of a Game 7 intact for a significant stretch of the second half, but as the fourth quarter continued, Antetokounmpo would not be denied. He bulldozed his way past any defender in sight, erasing Phoenix’s five-point halftime lead with a physicality unmatched by any player of his era.
The final minutes on Tuesday night marked a coronation of Antetokounmpo as the king of the league, a statement that felt improbable both four weeks and four years ago. The 2021 playoffs served as a showcase for the NBA’s next wave of stars, with Antetokounmpo now standing chief among them.
Milwaukee’s title stands in stark contrast to the crew of champions over the last decade. The Bucks have their own Big 3, but there’s no confusing this Milwaukee squad with the superteams of yesteryear in Miami or Golden State. The acquisition of Holiday came under far different circumstances than the Lakers’ addition of Anthony Davis. Ditto for the Raptors’ heist of Kawhi Leonard. While the recent slate of champions came through various measures of cold calculation, Milwaukee’s championship has a distinctly organic feel. Holiday isn’t exactly a future Hall-of-Famer. Middleton began his career as a fringe rotation player. As for Antetokounmpo, he’s the most unlikely superstar in league history, and one of the greatest success stories in the history of American sports. Antetokounmpo’s journey over the last decade has now resulted in his first championship. Let’s hope it’s far from his last.
More NBA Finals Coverage:
• Bobby Portis Is the Bucks’ Unsung Hero
• Milwaukee’s Defense Was Built for This Moment
• Thousands of Fans Flood Deer District for Game 6
• See Every Angle of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Absurd Game-Saving Block