It breaks my heart to kick off Dunk of the Week with a downer in its new home here at TieBreaker, but the truth reaches out to me, pulls me in, and points me in the direction it demands. There is, quite simply, no dunk that says more about the week at hand than reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo driving into the body of Knicks forward Julius Randle, executing a deft spin move, rising up over Randle, and throwing down the ball with brutal efficiency.
Milwaukee has been off to a murderous start this year, netting a whopping 20-3 record and currently sitting on a 14-game winning streak. Giannis, the center and the source, is largely responsible for that, and is currently sitting in pole position to claim the NBA MVP award for the second year in a row. He’s incredible. He drives, he boards, he dishes, he dunks, it doesn’t matter what you need, he will do it with gusto, an unstoppable tornado possessed by the pure spirit of basketball.
Do you remember Giannis when he was a young man, though, back when he came into the NBA, the fifteenth pick out of Milwaukee? All limbs, flailing and akimbo, some intriguing intangible skills, all wobbly and unrefined? In those days, he reminded me of my favorite baby animal: the baby goose. Now, I understand the appeal of a duckling, of course: It’s a wonderful little ball of yellow fluff. But there’s just something about seeing those teenage geese, their weird little wings and all-out-of-proportion necks, wobbling through their little world, existing in a liminal state and waiting for a time when their awkward features will manifest into something more traditionally beautiful and powerful.
Like the gosling he once resembled, Giannis has, through the years, transmuted from a pile of weird limbs and mis-grown wings into a full-on-ass goose: big, mean, athletic, powerful. If there is a full-on-ass goose in your yard, you’re not going to go out of your way to confront it, because that goose can and absolutely will fly up in the air and kick your butt, make you look pathetic in front of your laughing children, and ruin the family barbecue altogether.
Julius Randle was destined for the NBA. Seventh pick, out of a major program, a highly ranked prospect out of high school, made for this sh*t. Giannis ended up in basketball nearly on accident, a Nigerian immigrant in Greece, recruited basically off the street, where he was selling watches to tourists near the Parthenon. But it just hasn’t worked out for Randle. He’s a little too short, not quite fast enough, he’s mostly been with mediocre organizations who haven’t been able to give him anything to hang his hat on. There’s no particular reason to believe, watching him ply his trade for a dire Knicks squad comprised mostly of washouts on their way overseas, that he hasn’t maxed out his value on an NBA court.
It’s fine, of course. He’s made a lot of money and he stands to make some more, be it as a tenth man or as an unstoppable force somewhere in the French league. But, in his deepest heart of hearts, he must know, or have some understanding, that his time in the NBA just isn’t going to turn out like he hoped it would. There is no baby goose left in that frame, ready to burst out and clobber opponents with a piercing, screeching HONK and a few well-timed pecks to the eye; it’s just Julius, here and now and forever.
But he’s a professional, so he’s out there trying, bodying up Giannis, who is both taller AND faster than him. It doesn’t work, of course — Giannis is too fast and they’re already too deep. Giannis rolls off him and rises up, easily.
What happens now, I think, is what just breaks your heart. Randle gets his hand up, maybe seeing if he can get a strip, maybe being driven somewhere deep in the darkest parts of his mind, a mind that was once living in the body of a high schooler who could turn any little sh*thead trying to throw down on him into a puddle of living goo; or maybe he was just trying to save himself the headache of an assistant coach pointing out a capitulation in a film session.
But he just … can’t bring himself to jump. He knows what will happen. The limits of the self are right there. It’s just a foul, it’s just an embarrassing highlight plastered all over SportsCenter, shared on timelines across the world. He stays on the ground, just radiating the pure, vile stink of giving up, as he gets risen up over and jammed on, more or less.
Contrast Randle’s profound humiliation with another dunk from last night, where Pistons center Andre Drummond catches a pass from Tony Snell, rises up over Giannis and Robin Lopez, a little late on his rotation, and powers one down, full-body contact, a legit 100% slam on the Greek Freak. It’s a poster, out and out, Drummond full-on catching a body and offering a staredown on his way back.
But let’s be real, everyone: This just doesn’t have the psychic impact that seeing Randle weakly crawl into a hole does. Giannis went for the block because he’s brave, because he knows in his heart of hearts, that whatever Andre Drummond is getting up to night-to-night can’t destroy him. He and Lopez just jog back. They don’t care. Well, all right, Giannis might care a LITTLE. He did get beefed on, after all. But at the end of the day, no one is going to remember or care that Drummond caught RoLo sleeping and tagged Giannis on a random Thursday, and he KNOWS that. The Bucks dropped 137 on the Pistons, Giannis netted 35, and he was rewarded for his courage twice, when he managed to get two blocks. It’s a powerful dunk on PAPER, sure, but no one is getting the psychic juices they need from Andre Drummond doing a staredown. If Drummond’s deeply unspectacular career is any indication, not even Andre Drummond is getting it.
Giannis might have gotten a better highlight on paper if Randle had gone for it, like Giannis did against Drummond. AND1, Randle’s body flying into the sanction, a deeply unseemly scene. It would have been a big show, everyone in the world watching it on their phones, a world of basketball fans, spontaneously rising up and hooting and hollering on the bus, pumping their fists, high-fiving with the driver, breaking out into tears at the display of pure athletic domination they just saw.
But honestly, from a purely quantitative standpoint, what Giannis managed to do against Randle — breaking his mind, utilizing his powerful goose energy to turn him into a frightened being raising his hands in the charge circle, being so dominant, night to night — that just by stepping on the court, he has implanted himself deep in Randle’s mind, coaxing him into sitting under the basket and just getting pecked to death, is somehow more impressive. He’s so good that he warps the psychology of his defenders, breaks their spirits, makes them look down and see their Knicks jersey and yearn for a day when the whole world was in front of them. It’s dominance that breaks hearts.