It’s wild how quickly the narrative of a dude’s career can change. Over the last few years, Giannis Antetokounmpo had been tagged as an otherworldly talent who nevertheless did not have the versatility, or the juice, or even just the shooting skill necessary to lead the Bucks on playoff runs that validated their high seeding. That view of the Bucks as fraudulent could be easily held as recently as a week ago, when they were down in the Finals against the Suns and, despite boasting the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, simply could not do anything to slow down the Phoenix attack.
But not anymore! After what easily goes down as one of the greatest NBA Finals performances of all time—and, within that, one of the best four-game stretches in basketball history— Giannis is king of the world. With his 50 points in the clincher he is heroic, beloved, untouchable, and completely free (for now) of all the criticism that dogged him at the end of his back-to-back MVP campaigns.
There’s one particular series of plays, from the middle of the fourth quarter of Game 6, that will stick with me whenever I think about Giannis. As the Bucks’ lead grew from a slim 84-82 into a just-sufficient 94-88, Giannis showed off all of his talents and then some. In the span of just a few possessions, he blocked his Finals nemesis Devin Booker twice, tipped in a Khris Middleton miss, drew two fouls inside that led to four made free throws, and, a little bit later, produced an emphatic slam and then helped create a turnover on the other end. Hindsight, of course, is everything, but at the end of these two-and-a-half minutes it really did feel ordained: Giannis isn’t going to lose this game.
It was the free throws, of all things, that really killed off any last doubt. The countdown chant on the road during his lengthy pre-shot routine became the crossover hit of the summer, and it served to magnify the impact every single time Giannis missed a free throw, which was in fact pretty often. He was below 64 percent from the line in each of the first three rounds, and heading into Game 6 he was a mere 39-for-66 in the Finals, and coming off a 4-of-11 showing on the road.
In Game 6, however, his foul shots made the difference for Milwaukee, as he somehow managed his best performance from the line all playoffs by hitting 17 out of 19, with one of those misses coming in the final 10 seconds when the outcome was already decided. Luck, or icy veins, or some sort of undiscovered Big-Game Gene: Whatever it was, it cemented Giannis’s newfound reputation as a guy who delivers under pressure. The man himself even got a big kick out of it.
Something that I’ve kept talking about with people, and something that certainly contributed to the celebrations being especially weepy, is that this all felt like a literal storybook ending. Giannis came through adversity—not just the ends of prior seasons but his knee injury in these playoffs, and a whole host of doubts about the extent of his abilities—and he worked really hard and, eventually, he and his boys won four straight to become world champs. Not only did he earn it, but he won for the rest of us the ability to enjoy his brilliance too, with no caveats.