This certainly is not an original thought. Consider it more an affirmation of the obvious.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the greatest basketball players in the world.
If you watched Game 4 of the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics second-round NBA Playoff series on Monday, you’d be nodding your head in agreement. He was every bit Kevin Durant, an unstoppable force the Celtics had no answer for.
During the telecast, Marv Albert, who has been calling NBA games since the 1960s, said Antetokounmpo reminded him of the great Connie Hawkins when Hawkins was in his prime during his two seasons in the ABA. And that’s about the nicest thing anyone can say about a player.
Antetokounmpo scored 39 points (17 in the fourth quarter) and added 16 rebounds and four assists to the Bucks 113-101 over the Celtics. Milwaukee, which hasn’t lost three straight all season, takes a 3-1 series lead home for Wednesday’s Game 5.
“I think the whole group, the whole team played hard.” Antetokounmpo said. “The whole team was ready. Everybody stepped up. This is what [separates] the average team from a great team or a good team. You have opportunity to be up two games, and we were all ready. It was really good tonight.”
Antetokounmpo, aka “The Greek Freak,” plays a role very rare in the league. He is essentially a point guard who dominates in the paint, a player in the Magic Johnson mold who defies any attempt to categorize or defend him.
In a game essentially won by Milwaukee’s bench strength, he was the one who pushed Boston away every time it appeared they were coming close in the fourth quarter. And his forays to the basket were met with little defensive resistance, which ultimately caused Celtic fans to boo their team off the floor when the game was over.
In a league largely defined by Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Antetokounmpo has had to fight hard to attract the same attention. But now you can’t take your eyes off him.
“Giannis is just … it’s hard to find the words,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “What he does for our team, I think on both ends of the court. He’s so multi-faceted, multi-dimensional. Attacking in transition like a point guard. Finding guys. His assists are huge. He gets to the free-throw line. He made two threes again tonight. He’s just doing everything.
“Certainly don’t want to take him for granted. His teammates appreciate him, the coaches, myself. He’s special, but he’s very hungry. He wants more and he’s playing that way.”
The Bucks had the best regular season record in the league this season and Antetokounmpo has had an MVP campaign. It will be interesting to see how the voters interpret his contribution, whether his impact garners more respect than Golden State’s Durant and Houston’s Harden.
If there was a moment on Monday that exemplified Antetokounmpo’s effect, his unselfishness, it came after the Bucks called a timeout after the Celtics had cut their lead from 12 to five (91-86) with just over seven minutes to play.
Brook Lopez set a screen for him in the middle of the floor and Antetokounmpo was suddenly being covered by Marcus Morris. Isolated on the left side of the floor, he drove the ball on Morris and was encountered by other defenders. But instead of forcing the ball to the rim, he dished back to Lopez behind three-point line and the big guy drained it.
“Aside from setting the tone aggressively, the mindset Giannis has and being the team player he has been, the way he holds himself accountable, that definitely trickles down,” Lopez said. “That’s contagious. Our locker room is special in that regard. You don’t see that. It happens rarely, if ever, throughout the league.”
The Bucks received a lot of help last night, especially after Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul midway through the third period with the score tied 59-59. George Hill (15 points, five assists) and Pat Connaughton (nine points, 10 rebounds) excelled and led Milwaukee to a run in the final 4:18 of the period that gave them an eight-point lead headed into the fourth.
“Some nights, the starters might not have it going,” Connaughton said. “The effort and the energy when we check into the game. That’s something George, me, everybody on the bench prides ourselves in. That is the ‘Bench Mob.'”
This was the way it was in Game 3 in Boston. Connaughton and Hill combined for 35 points in that win.
“They’ve been the difference-maker in this series,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great to have guys who can step up like that from the bench.”
That’s nice of him to say, of course. But its fundamentally untrue. Imagine if the Bucks didn’t have Antetokounmpo to answer every question. There’s nothing Hill or Connaughton would be able to do to compensate. There’s no way the Bucks would be on the verge of their first conference final since 2001.
“I’d rather not think about if this is the biggest game of my career,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “All I’m thinking is I’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win the game. I think going into Game 3 was more pressure, but we were able to get that one. Going into Game 4, as a team, we were in a good spot to take the lead, be up two games. You’re going to use that opportunity or (are) you just going to waste this opportunity?”