This was one for the preachers and practitioners of the old school, for those who’d started to believe basketball’s modern affinity for 3-point shootouts and drive-and-kick artistry had neutralized the need for a dominant big man.
Big Men dominated the conversation for the sport’s first century, after all, and usually all it took was a single name to illustrate the authority: Mikan and Russell. Wilt and Kareem. Shaq and Hakeem. Patrick. Moses. Walton.
And, now: Giannis.
There’s really no understating what Giannis Antetokounmpo did Sunday night. He saved the Milwaukee Bucks’ season. He rescued these NBA Finals from becoming the one-sided bore they threatened to be after the first 96 minutes. Mostly, he honored every ounce of his skill and his talent and his power.
“He’s just doing whatever it takes to help us, he’s of an aggressive mindset but he passed well, did a little bit of everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said after watching his star post 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, powering Milwaukee to a thorough 120-100 demolition of the Suns in Game 3 of the Finals, allowing the Bucks to hold serve at home, permitting them to resume dreams of winning their first NBA championship in the 50 years since Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) made that happen for them.
“We need a lot from him,” Budenholzer said, “and he delivered.”
The one truth of Big Men that’s persisted through the generations is the reality they alone are capable of delivering the most simple premise of critical, essential basketball games: when they choose to, they can refuse to let their teams lose. It is the product of being larger than life in a game populated by larger-than-life characters.
It is one thing to be a dominant player; even Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird had games where they simply couldn’t buy a basket. It’s something else to be a dominant force. That’s what has always separated the elite centers from the rest in a game that used to exist from inside out. You can contain a player, even a great one.
A force is something else.
Antetokounmpo was a force Sunday, start to finish, beginning to end, insisting that his teammates get involved (four of his assists came in the first quarter) and he was everywhere: finishing drives, clearing the glass, occupying space in the middle, even making his foul shots (13-for-17).
It meant back-to-back 40-point explosions for Antetokounmpo, and when it was pointed out that back in 1993, against the Suns, Michael Jordan reached that plateau four straight games …
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” he said sheepishly. “I’m not Michael Jordan. All I care about right now is one more game. One more win.”
The Bucks were desperate, and Milwaukee was even more so. Fiserv Forum was abuzz from the opening tip, and the masses outside were engaged. No city better understands the eternal value of the Big Man, of course. The Bucks went from 27 wins to 66 wins and a title in the two years after Kareem arrived. They were perennial stones in the shoes of the Celtics and Sixers in the ‘80s once they installed Bob Lanier in the middle.
And now they have Antetokounmpo, two-time MVP, who before this year was never quite able to push the Bucks out of the East. Even during this splendid spring, it seemed the focus had settled more on Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings than his strengths. He isn’t the perfect player, and doesn’t claim to be.
Against the Nets he looked vulnerable, and Kevin Durant took great delight in tormenting him. He was hurt against the Hawks, and watched his teammates deliver him to his first Finals in street clothes — every bit as excited in civvies as he would’ve been in uniform.
“I’m not 100 percent,” Antetokounmpo said, “but I watched my teammates play good basketball and gave me a chance to come back at the end of the day that’s all I can ask for.”
He’s healthy now, and whatever percentage he ascribes his knee he’s playing at his peak — a peak far different than just about anyone else’s in the game. He wants to get to the basket, he gets to the basket. He wants to grab a rebound, he grabs it. Forces do that. They aren’t governed as others are, by the laws of physics and physical limitation. As the game has gotten smaller, we forget just how important the Big Man is.
Giannis, first-name force, has reminded us. And we have a Finals because of it.