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Giannis Antetokounmpo Has Engaged Smash Mode

Giannis was pretty pumped!
Justin Casterline/Getty

Giannis Antetokounmpo wanted the ball, urgently, not sometimes but every time, for every second of the decisive third quarter of Milwaukee’s huge 120–100 Game 3 win over the Suns. Not in the suppressed, half-swallowed way that even the most timid basketball players—everyone not named Ben Simmons, that is—would generally prefer to have the ball, but in the superstar way: demonstrably, and with all the leverage enjoyed by a big fish in a small pond. You could maybe even detect a not-insignificant hint of frustration boiling over into anger in his gesturing, which was a little bit funny because the Bucks were rolling. What’s he so het up about?

Turns out this was less about an inflated Giannis imposing the Kobe Tax, where an alpha scorer claims his right to throw up a couple less-than-ideal isolation jumpers in order to stamp his supremacy on an outcome, and more just a cold and ruthless appraisal of the circumstances. Deandre Ayton, the only Suns rotation player capable of hanging with Giannis when he plays like a real center instead of a tall guard, was in foul trouble; Suns head coach Monty Williams was riding with an undersized lineup; Giannis was feeling comfortable from the free-throw line; and absolutely nothing Phoenix could do had any chance of keeping Giannis from getting right to the front of the rim. There’s a time for crisply flowing through the motions of an intricate offensive system, and then there’s a time for smashing. This was the latter.

My favorite moment from the quarter came in the final minute, and won’t show up on Giannis’s long and impressive highlight reel. Williams, at this point just sort of hunting around for anyone stout enough to provide even a speed bump on Antetokounmpo’s path to the cup, inserted lightly-used reserve swingman Abdel Nader. Giannis, just unabashedly demanding possession of the rock near the elbow, was waved down toward the baseline by Jrue Holiday, handling at the top of the key. Giannis jogged down to the low block, paused for one second, and then just burst through Nader for a brutal duck-in post-up right at the edge of the restricted arc. Giannis is like 15 yards of limbs and ripped muscle, and maybe a tiny handful of defenders across the entire sport can deny him the catch when he gets that kind of position. Nader is for sure not one of them. Holiday fired an entry pass; three different overmatched Suns frantically converged; Nader just started hacking at Giannis like a damn lumberjack. It was too late. Giannis gathered the ball through contact, pivoted through contact, and got the ball somehow headed basketward, through more contact. The shot rimmed out but there’d been something like three different fouls, and so Giannis was sent to the line, where he buried both the pair of freebies and the Suns. After the game Williams complained about one Bucks player taking more free throws (17) than his entire team (16), but even he had to know this was for the most part fair and legitimate. Giannis simply overwhelmed his small men.

The Suns are extremely good. They do this incredibly cool thing when they sense momentum shifting against them: Instead of slowing down and going into hero mode—something that even the best teams in the NBA reliably do, out of an unchallenged and often wrong-headed belief that moments of great urgency are best solved via Smash Mode—they floor the gas, red-line their effort, and go into a Zoom Mode of such speed and frenzy that it almost looks like someone accidentally jammed the fast-forward button on your remote control. It’s effective as hell, and Williams deserves a damn Nobel Prize for coaxing a team built around not one but two ball-dominant, midrange-loving guards to accelerate into a Spurs-esque egalitarian fugue state when the chips are down. That the Suns are up 2–1 in the NBA Finals is all the evidence you need that this is the right approach with this personnel: For as great at isolation scoring as Chris Paul and Devin Booker are, if they were ever gonna reach the mountaintop through sheer maximized usage they would’ve already done it by now.

You could say something similar but distinct in important ways about Giannis. The Bucks have tried the thing where they just let him hurl himself against the wall, to profoundly disappointing results. It’s probably not all the way out of their system, or his, and part of what the Suns will attempt going forward will undoubtedly involve baiting him into more of those dismal face-up dribble sequences. Whoever allowed Giannis to believe that his best use in a half-court offense involves throwing crossovers at defenders who have no earthly reason to come within 12 feet of him any closer than 12 feet from the basket—let’s blame Joe Prunty, screw it—deserves an atomic wedgie. But that doesn’t mean blunt smashing isn’t his best use. He’s the NBA’s premier smasher! It’s just that it should generally look a lot more like center smashing, as it did during that Nader duck-in and throughout the decisive second-half run Sunday night. During that third quarter, when Giannis was demanding the ball, it was so that he could tuck some poor overmatched schmo into his armpit, smush him into the restricted arc, and go right at the rim. Instead of Giannis as slow Iverson, it was Giannis as turbo Embiid, and buddy, it ruled:

The Suns, down 15 points at the half and in that breathtaking Zoom Mode, knocked down a ridiculous 12 of 19 shots in the third quarter, including half their three-pointers, and scored 31 points in the frame. And for their efforts, they entered the fourth quarter down 22 points and effectively out of the contest. Jrue Holiday went nuts from beyond the arc and Pat Connaughton hit some timely jumpers, but mostly Giannis was just completely fucking unstoppable. He put up 16 points on just five shots, hit eight freebies on nine attempts, and just flat-out refused to let the Suns forget for even a fraction of a second which team had the mightiest person on the floor. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and one single turnover. It was his second consecutive 40-point, 10-rebound Finals game, putting him in some very exclusive company. Now that the Bucks are on the board, it’s a little bit easier to appreciate just what the hell Giannis is doing in this series:

The Bucks will need their various other guys to shake loose, every night and without fail, in order to win this series. Game 2’s result—a comfortable Suns win—proves that even a dominating Giannis isn’t enough on his own to patch over Milwaukee’s vulnerabilities, and there are no late-arriving saviors on the horizon. Jeff Teague played another 14 minutes Sunday night, for crying out loud. But so long as his teammates are holding up their end of the bargain, and so long as Giannis continues to think of himself as a huge guy and not a small one, the juice will slosh around and level out, the Bucks will be right in the series, and viewers will have the chance to watch an unleashed, fully realized version of The Greek Freak. It’s a hell of a show.

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