The Milwaukee Bucks got on the board in the 2021 NBA Finals on Sunday with a comfortable 120-100 win over the Suns in Game 3 to make it a 2-1 series and give themselves a chance to send it back to Phoenix all square at 2-2. Leading the way for the Bucks, for the second straight game, was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who followed up his 42-point, 12-rebound effort in a Game 2 loss with 41 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists in Game 3, becoming the first player since Shaq to post back-to-back 40/10 games in the Finals.
To do so, Giannis has absolutely dominated in the paint, the common thread for all of his great nights, but what’s most important not just in these last two games but for most of the playoffs is how he has seemed to harness his aggression and balance it with patience.
For a long time, the book on Giannis was to show him bodies, form a wall, and dare him to shoot over it. Over time, seeing that kind of look over and over would lead to frustration and he would start to press rather than making the right play, either forcing up an ill-fated jump shot or barreling into traffic, head down, where defenders were often waiting to accept a charge as he ducked into their chests. He was predictable and his fiery, competitive spirit would get turned against him, as teams would bait him into trying to score in isolation.
The Bucks would play into it too, far too often just throwing him the ball and clearing out, asking him to create for himself over and over again. This postseason, Giannis has shown a more diverse offensive game, not necessarily in the types of shots he’s making but the manner in which he’s getting those shots. There’s still a tremendous creative load placed on his shoulders, but there has been a concerted effort to put him in actions as a screener and cutter, working off of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to leverage their creative skills to free Giannis up for some easy baskets.
Just take the cut-up of highlights from his Game 3 performance and look at the variety of ways he scores.
🔥 Giannis TAKES OVER in Game 3! 🔥
Game 4: Wed, 9 PM ET, ABC pic.twitter.com/lIazIIZbAo
— NBA (@NBA) July 12, 2021
There’s side pick-and-rolls with both Holiday and Pat Connaughton, a middle pick-and-roll with Middleton, put-backs on the offensive glass, a straight post-up (but against a clear mismatch in Devin Booker), and then a face-up drive on Jae Crowder who gets left on an island. In none of these clips do you see Giannis ducking his head and trying to force something up over multiple defenders. It’s smart offense, and when the Bucks are able to do that, it applies so much pressure on the defense that they start to break down.
Those early plays where Antetokounmpo catches it at the elbow and then quickly gets it back into the hands of one of his guards to set a screen and get into a pick-and-roll is what creates the one-on-one situation later against Crowder. The Suns aren’t as quick to send help because he’s been consistently getting them into actions with his passing and scoring off the ball so well that they can’t risk putting themselves into rotation too soon.
That gives Antetokounmpo the look he wants and rather than trying to draw Crowder out and build up a head of steam or backing him down, he moves quickly and decisively, which is a huge step for Giannis.
In Game 2, far more of Giannis’ points came from self-creation, due in part to the lack of success from Holiday and Middleton scoring, which made them lesser threats that allowed the Suns to shift more attention to Giannis in pick-and-roll coverage, but that latter point was still at play. He was decisive in his movements and attacked single-coverage when it presented itself, rarely falling into the trap of pulling the ball out and over-dribbling, which allows the defense to reset and show him more bodies and more help.
HUGE Game 2 for @Giannis_An34.
— NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2021
There were times in this postseason where it looked like the old Giannis problems might rear their ugly heads again, namely early in the Brooklyn series where Blake Griffin was able to bait him into charges and trying to pull the ball back out and isolate from outside the three-point line. Since then, though, we have seen a shift in Antetokounmpo’s game to be quicker and more decisive with the basketball.
It’s calculated aggression, attacking when there’s a clear advantage and doing so within the flow of the offense.
There are plenty of questions the Bucks must answer in this series if they’re to come back and win a championship, but as of this moment, they almost all involve the rest of the roster beyond Giannis. Will Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton consistently provide the scoring support Antetokounmpo needs? Will the role players be able to hit enough open shots? Will the thin backcourt rotation hold up? Can they find answers defensively for the Suns pick-and-roll attack?
All of those will determine whether the Bucks win the Finals, but that there isn’t a question right now about whether Giannis is going to give them enough is quite the turnaround from the last few exits. That’s not to say those have all been on him, but as the two-time MVP, he was the focal point for a lot of criticism about not being a playoff player and having enough holes in his game to be gameplanned for in a way an elite superstar shouldn’t be able to.
This postseason, he’s shut down those thoughts by showing up constantly in big moments and delivering in a way some thought he might simply not be able to because he is so reliant on getting to the rim to score.
There was an idea that against the best teams who could throw enough size and enough bodies at him, he’d eventually see his impact diminished. That’s no longer the case and it’s less about him adding to his physical skillset, but instead adapting his approach to how teams have tried to attack him. There are still moments where he can fall in love with the jump shot, but they seem more fleeting, like one-offs, than something you can coerce him into doing over and over. His mental strength has caught up to his physical prowess, finding the delicate balance of being patient without being passive while being aggressive without being stubborn. The result is a terrifying prospect for the league.