Laughing and smiling and dancing and hugging and I love you mans and chest bumps and tears and roars to the sky and arms raised in triumph, the Milwaukee Bucks, powered by the excellence of Giannis Antetokounmpo are NBA champions.
On a night where no other Buck was able to score more than 17 points, Giannis produced a masterpiece against the Phoenix Suns. Fifty points. Fourteen rebounds. Five (!) blocks. Seventeen-of-19 from the line. Hellacious defense. Violent attacks to the rim. He was everywhere and did everything for his team. As close-out performances go, it ranks among the finest in NBA finals history.
It was not all Antetokounmpo for the entire series. The Bucks coaching staff made savvy defensive adjustments throughout, forcing the Suns into outside shots, a bold strategy that paid off. Khris Middleton found a level of consistency that has been non-existent throughout his career. Jrue Holiday was Jrue Holiday: equal parts a defensive menace and a high variance scorer who can disappear one night and then make how-in-the-what shots the next.
But Tuesday night was Giannis’ night. Nobody will be applauding louder this morning than the NBA’s small-market team owners and the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver. In a league full of player movement and big city superteams like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, Antetokounmpo is the superstar who stayed.
Ringz culture drove the creation of superteams. Once superstars’ careers and reputations were (supposedly) devalued because they lacked an NBA title, it drove them to find quick fixes, to join forces, to make a title easier. Winning a championship with internal growth and moves on the margin is harder; best to call another Hall of Famer and find a landing spot that can help you both (and perhaps a third running mate), on and off the court.
That same culture has forced a backlash. We’re all in favor of player empowerment and flashy free-agent signings but it has made championship teams more transient; the championships themselves feel more fleeting. An expensive star drafted in for a few seasons feels less part of a city than Michael Jordan in Chicago, Steph Curry in the Bay Area or LeBron James in Cleveland (once he was forgiven for his own superteam dalliance with Miami).
So a homegrown superstar playing alongside a shrewdly built roster is exactly what the league needed. It needed a solo star to push his team over the top, to make winning one for yourself, one for your team feel different, cooler, more important than microwaving two or three titles with a collection of Hall of Famers in a city the trio have no attachment to. “I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship,” Antetokounmpo said after clinching the title on Tuesday night. “But this is the hard way to do it and this is the way we chose to do it.”
Kevin Durant worked for his titles in Golden State; he played out of his mind in each finals appearance that the Warriors won. But it’s hard to put those wins alongside Dirk Nowitzki’s in Dallas or what Giannis has achieved over the past fortnight. Keeping Luka Doncic in Dallas or Devin Booker in Phoenix will become less of a challenge when you can point to the impact of Giannis’ title on his legacy and the NBA’s culture at large.
That it’s this star that delivered the one-for-the-little-guys victory doesn’t hurt. He’s not just the one who stayed when others bolted for easier avenues. He’s the international star at the dawn of the game’s global age. As the LeBrons, Stephs and Pauls age out, it will become a league of Antetokounmpos, Doncics, Embiids, and Jokics – the kind of international, Premier League-style competition that the NBA has long aspired to build.
In Giannis, the band has its perfect frontman. He is a charming, hardest-worker-in-the-room kind of star, with the charisma and backstory to go with it. “I hope I can give people around the world hope it can be done,” Antetokounmpo said after claiming the title. “My mom was selling stuff in the street, and now I’m sitting here at the top of the top. If I never sit at this table again, I’ll be fine with it.”
It’s unlikely to be his last time at the table. LeBron won his first title in his ninth season in the league. Jordan won his first in his seventh; Wilt in his eighth; Shaq in his ninth; Durant in his 10th. Antetokounmpo picked up his first finals win in his eighth season, right on the traditional evolutionary line of the all-time greats: You lose, you develop, you grow, you win, and you don’t stop winning until the next all-time great rises to stop you.
Some of those aforementioned all-timers spent years in college honing their game. At 18, Giannis was still dribbling around folding chairs in a leaky gym in Greece during his downtime, trying to attract the attention of NBA scouts.
Now, he’s a two-time MVP of the league, an NBA champion, and a finals MVP. He has built his game slowly and methodically, building brick by brick, using one skill to enable another.
Throughout the run to the finals, he reinvented his game. Whereas he spent the better part of three seasons playing as ‘Point Giannis’, carrying the ball up the floor and initiating the offense, deep in the playoffs he was asked to serve as an off-the-ball freight train: setting screens, driving to the rim, and collapsing the defense on the move – where he’s at his best – rather than trying to play the kind of outside game that would mirror LeBron or Durant. He is, essentially, Shaquille O’Neal in a perimeter player’s body. Rather than force the LeBron-style that has seen Milwaukee dumped from the postseason over the last two seasons, he acquiesced to the needs of the team. He ditched the creator role, drove hard to the ram, lurked on defense, and flew end-to-end looking for easy buckets and chase down blocks. He did unglamorous work in the post, engaging a bruising bully-ball side of his game rather than drifting to the perimeter and looking to hoist up clunky-looking threes.
That versatility, the ability to switch between a run-n-gun style in the regular season and a grimier style in the postseason, is what makes him special. Few superduperstars in the history of the sport have had the kind of physical tools and selflessness to make such large adjustments on the fly.
And to think: at the age of 26, he is still only scratching the surface of his all-around game. At some point, he will be able to blend those styles midgame. His outside shooting will improve. So will his decision-making and vision as a passer. Soon, he will be able to toggle to whichever style will win on a possession-to-possession, game-to-game, or series-to-series basis. Good luck to everyone else once that clicks.