The Giannis experience: How MVP leader Antetokounmpo captivates even opponents
The 'Greek Freak' continued his astonishing run Monday night vs. the Hornets.
MILWAUKEE -- Steve Clifford's Charlotte Hornets notched an 18-point win Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks in their home opener. The moment that game ended, the clock started ticking: 70 hours to prepare for a Monday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks and the player who has been the story of this week-old NBA season, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
By the next morning, the coach started catching up on tape of the Greek Freak. Clifford freely admitted it: It was fun. He took joy in watching such a transcendent player, especially one who is so young and is blossoming into a superstar before our eyes.
For the first day of watching Bucks' tape, Clifford enjoyed it like a fan. He was like all of us who have been transfixed by the numbers of Giannis' first three games -- averaging 38.3 points on a ridiculous 67.2 percent shooting, with 9.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.7 steals -- as well as his unprecedented style as a seven-footer running point and dominating every facet of the game.
"That's one of the nice things about this league," Clifford said. "We played Friday, so Saturday you start watching the other team. And Saturday you can sit and enjoy his greatness. It's not just his size and his athleticism -- he has an energy level and a flair and a passion for playing that's fun to watch.
"And by Sunday night," Clifford said, "you're like, 'What are we going to do?' "
Every time Antetokounmpo takes the floor these days, it is a moment. Doesn't matter when, whether it's Friday night prime-time matchup against LeBron and the Cavaliers or just a low-key Monday night in Milwaukee, against the Hornets, a 103-94 Bucks victory that didn't require quite the same theatrics .
People come out for Giannis because they realize they could be experiencing a generational talent coming into his own. The numbers themselves are awe-inspiring. Like what Giannis did last season, becoming the first player in NBA history to rank in the top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, which gained him his first All-Star berth. But more inspiring than any statistic is seeing this joy-filled young man in person, and the crowd that comes out for him.
"If you enjoy basketball, there's no way you're not a fan of his game," Hornets forward Marvin Williams, a 13-year NBA veteran, said in the locker room before the game. "You want to try to do everything you can to slow him down – you're not going to stop him. He's made that very, very clear. It's almost scary – what is he, 21, 22? It's almost scary how much longer he's going to play and how much better he's going to become."
Scary because he's doing all this without having in his toolbox the skill that most dominates today's NBA: an outside shot. Giannis has averaged 1.6 3-point attempts per game over his career and has only made them at a rate of 27.6 percent. He didn't even attempt one Monday night against the Hornets, scoring his 32 points on 13-for-21 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 from the line. That's not good, but what is good is the underlying mechanics, and the fact that he has steadily improved his free-throw shooting in his short career, to 77 percent last season.
He makes his living dashing into the paint and scoring in an array of creative ways. He's the type of player who would dominate in any era. The fact he's dominating in an era that's defined by outside shooting is remarkable. He's bigger than Durant, as explosive as LeBron. If he learns to shoot adequately from 3 -- no, when he does -- well, that's what opponents both fear as Giannis' adversaries but enjoy as NBA fans.
"I don't know if I've seen anything like him," Williams continued. "His game is so unique, because he's so big, so strong, so fast. A lot of times he's a one-man fast break, which is crazy. And he does it every night. I'm sure he'll do something where we'll look at the film tomorrow and be like, 'Damn – what could you do to stop that?' And more times than not, it's probably nothing. He's just one of those special, special talents."
The game tipped, and Giannis quickly scored the Bucks' first seven points. He came straight at Jeremy Lamb in transition and stepped around him with a Eurostep; Lamb turned his back to Giannis and tried to get out of the way, but he was still called for the foul. When Giannis stepped to the free-throw line, the arena chanted, "MVP! MVP!" The Bucks' rowdy fan section, the Clutch Crew, waved a Greek flag.
In the middle of the second quarter, he stole the ball from Lamb at the top of the key, saved it from going out of bounds, stepped around Frank Kaminsky and dished it to Tony Snell for an easy dunk. A minute later, he grabbed a rebound, pushed the ball in transition, subtly shoved Treveon Graham out of his way and laid it in over Kaminsky, getting the and-one. On the next play, he ably hounded Kemba Walker on the perimeter and forced him into a contested 3 that Walker missed. Giannis kept working the ball into the paint -- he currently leads the NBA in points in the paint -- and then he kicked it out to 7-foot center Thon Maker, who drained a 3. Later, he was on the break when he tossed a behind-the-back pass to Mirza Teletovic, who knocked down a wide-open 3. In the closing seconds of the third quarter, three Hornets defenders swarmed Giannis on the block, but he calmed tossed it to an open Teletovic for another 3 at the buzzer.
Kaminsky threw his hands up in the air. You couldn't stop him.
In the end, the Bucks improved to 3-1. Giannis' 32 points came with 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. Afterward the telecast flashed an absurd stat: That Antetokounmpo had broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks record for most points in the first four games of a season. Nobody cares about that record. But the fact that this 22-year-old unfinished product was being mentioned in the same breath as Kareem underscores his greatness.
In the locker room afterward, the televisions were tuned to Monday Night Football. Giannis leaned forward and flipped through his phone, a towel around his waist and his left foot in a big red ice bucket. Another remarkable game, but just a regular night for him. The room was steamy from the nearby showers. Giannis took a chug from his Cool Blue Gatorade.
A few lockers down, Jason Terry, the 40-year-old vet, marveled at what he's be seeing. He's borne witness to this before, when a teammate went from about-to-be-a-star to a megastar. He with Dirk Nowitzki when Dirk made that jump in Dallas and with James Harden when Harden made that jump in Houston. With both Dirk and Harden, the jump was about mentally taking their game to the next level. But Terry said that with Giannis, there's something a little different. A little more special.
"He's had to grow and develop his game at the same time as his mental side, and he's been able to do so at such a rapid rate," Terry marveled. "Each year he's added a new element to his game. He's yet to become a finished product, but you still can say he's one of the top five players in the league."
Or maybe top three?
"Top three?" Terry replied. "It's not far-fetched. It's not crazy when you see the work ethic he has, when you understand he's a student of the game who is seven feet and all the physical tools of a guard. That's what keeps me smiling, keeps me coming to the gym every day, every night. It's a joy to watch."
Giannis tugged on a green hoodie and zipped it up. He turned to Snell, whose locker is next to his, and told him that he still owes him $17: "I have to pay you!"
"Take your time," Snell said. "You know where I'm at."
Giannis turned to face the media who had been lingering in the locker room. A reporter asked if he could keep up this type of production over an entire season. The subtext to that question? If he does and if the Bucks continue to win, Giannis will likely become the youngest MVP since Derrick Rose.
"I know when I can score the ball now," Giannis said. "In previous years I was just taking the ball and just racing guys. Now I kind of know my sweet spots when I get the ball. If I'm in the middle of the court, I'll be able to make plays. I just know when to score and when to make a play."
What's most impressive about Giannis is that he is this good and yet still has so much room to grow. That's what makes opposing coaches and players sounds like fans when they talk about his game. And it's why every time Giannis sets foot on a basketball court, it's an event. Because instead of seeing a fully realized superstar at the height of his powers, we get to watch a superstar as he grows into his powers. And I'm not sure if there's a more fun experience in sports than that.
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