He’s just been announced the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, is likely to claim back to back MVP’s, and is the marquee man on the best regular season team over the past two seasons. But for all the personal accolades and achievements, question marks still linger on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and by extension his Milwaukee Bucks, ability to perform come playoff time.
Rewind to the 2018-19 season where the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. In crunch moments where you need your best player to stand up, Giannis was subdued and a shell of the player we’d seen during the regular season. He averaged five less points per game, shot just 45% from the field (compared to 58% in the regular season) and just 58% from the free throw line (compared to 73% in the regular season).
Come this season’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, we’ve seen something eerily similar against another rugged, hard-nosed defence in the Miami Heat. In game one, we’re both teams were looking to make a statement, Antetokounmpo was restricted to just 12 field goal attempts and again displayed his deficiencies at the free throw line.
Perhaps his limitations are amplified by the performance of the opposition’s best player. Just like Kawhi Leonard last year, it’s been another two-way wing in Jimmy Butler who has stamped himself empathically as the best player on the floor. In game one, as Antetokounmpo’s one dimensional scoring was plain to see, so too was Butler’s multi-faceted game - getting to the rim, draining mid ranges and threes, and remaining highly efficient at the line. Although Butler may have been quieter in game two, the tone for the series was set.
Anything less than a finals appearance is a failure for both Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, given their dominance over the past two regular seasons. On current form, they’re not beating the Heat let alone the inform Celtics who look likely to defeat the reigning champion Raptors.
If Giannis can’t shape up and lead his team back from a 2-0 deficit and further to a finals appearance, then why should he waste years of his career in the belief that he can win a championship without another bona fide star? There are already rumblings of a move to Miami to play alongside Butler, or to form a mouth-watering duo in Golden State with Stephen Curry.
Although fans may despise such a move, we shouldn’t be surprised if Giannis were to move to create a ‘super team’. Lebron James acknowledged he couldn’t win a championship with Cleveland and subsequently joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. He only returned to the Cavaliers once they’d acquired Kyrie Irving and another number one overall pick which they traded for Kevin Love. More recently and perhaps even more controversially, we saw Kevin Durant leave Russell Westbrook and the Thunder to form the Warriors dynasty.
Will Giannis make a similar move should he fail to reach the ultimate success with the Bucks? It’s something we should accept as a distinct possibility with the Greek Freak set to become a free agent at the end of next season.