Giannis Antetokounmpo and his title-defending Milwaukee Bucks are gone, bounced by Boston in the second round in seven games after getting Horforded in Game 4, Tatumed in Game 6, and Williamsed in Game 7. If it feels disappointing that the defending champions fell short of the conference finals after losing to a team that won a single playoff game last year, it really should not be. The Bucks had to sled uphill without their second best player against the best team in the NBA. Without Khris Middleton, a roster stocked with limited players whose games are built to complement the omnipotence of Antetokounmpo was strained past the point of credibility over the course of seven games—Pat Connaughton is still a reasonably skilled athletic wing type, but he is here to pop into open space cleared out for him by Antetokounmpo, not create shots off the bounce against Marcus Smart on a switch with nine seconds on the clock. Inhuman efforts were demanded of Antetokounmpo, and still, he very nearly pushed his team to the conference finals by unkillable force.
The lingering fart cloud of legacy and narrative and Charles Barkley yelling at you on TNT can hover uncomfortably over a series and convince anyone that great players don’t lose a series like this, or that greatness demands a player like Antetokounmpo transcend limits and win on his own. But even though he lost, we should appreciate Antetokounmpo for what he did against Boston, and I think it’s not contradictory to frame this series as a failed upset bid rather than a defending champ choking a title defense away. Because, man, have you watched the Celtics in the playoffs? Jayson Tatum has ascended, the whole team passes like they share a brain, and the team defense is so good, the “weak link” teams have been attacking is Derrick White, who nearly made an all-defense team. The Celtics’ rotation is six guys who can all defend multiple positions at an all-defense level, shoot threes, and make the right pass, plus one of the best defensive destroyers in the NBA, plus a tiny water bug shooting specialist. Even without Smart and Robert Williams, Boston could still field perfectly coherent, terrifying lineups around Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They do everything right and they know exactly who they are. The Bucks, down an all-star, were forced to overl-everage Antetokounmpo.
And it almost worked. The dynamic of this series crystallized in Game 3, the Bucks’ first game in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo dropped 42 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks, and two steals. He overpowered and outran Boston’s defenders to get his at the rim and in the lane. He and Jrue Holiday took over 60 percent of the Bucks’ shots. They won by two. Boston had a lead inside of the final minute of that game, which Giannis of course snatched away for good by cooking Jaylen Brown. The Bucks earned themselves a 2-1 series lead, but it was clear that it would be a hard path to advance. If the Celtics played anything close to a normal offensive game (which they did not in Game 1), Antetokounmpo would necessarily have to drop 40 for the Bucks to have a chance to win. That’s a ludicrous proposition for any player, let alone one doing so without an all-star teammate against a locked-in defense that knows you have to make that gambit succeed to beat them.
This now-established dynamic played itself out over the course of Games 3-6, which was the best run of games we’ve seen in the playoffs so far. Al Horford had the game of his life to negate a 34-18-5 night from Antetokounmpo in Game 4. The two-time MVP countered with 40 and 11 in Game 5, a game in which the Bucks’ collective muscularity erased a 14-point fourth quarter lead. Antetokounmpo, of course, got popped in the head by his own teammate and hit a critical three, grabbed a one-handed rebound in traffic, and drew two late free throws all with blood pouring down his face. That Game 5 gem set up the Bucks’ final home game of the series, one they correctly treated like a must-win. Boston was the superior team in the contest, as they’d been all series long, but the Bucks mounted a brilliant comeback in the early fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo had a fantastic seqeunce: he dunked it on two guys for an and-1, helped set up a Pat Connaughton three-pointer, grabbed three rebounds in two minutes, then finally splashed a three-pointer of his own from the top of the arc. That shot, which comes at 6:46 in the video below, is pretty stunning. Antetokounmpo is not a good three-point shooter, though the Celtics still deliberately gave him 10 feet of free, open space because they were so terrified of him getting into the lane. That sort of spatialization immediately scans as odd. Antetokounmpo warps the shape of the game in a way nobody else in the league currently does.
Unfortunately for Antetokounmpo, his 44-point, 22-board, six-assist gigaperformance was finally matched. Tatum notched 46, hitting jumpers with slivers of the shot clock left to stave of what looked like it would turn out to be a fatal Bucks run. Antetokounmpo posted the playoffs’ first 40-20 game since 2001, and it all came in a futile effort against a team of perfectly coherent basketball geniuses, which seems like a fair epitaph for this series. Antetokounmpo is 27, firmly the best player in the NBA, and will probably not take the plunge with a worse roster than this in a while, so he’s not going anywhere. Still, appreciate his brilliance for what it was, not what it failed to earn him.