On the way to a 22-point win and a 2-0 series lead, Antetokounmpo opened the game by driving through the Toronto Raptors’ defense, rebounding his own missed shot and powerfully slamming home the basketball. Twenty-seven seconds later, he dunked again and the Bucks were on their way to a wire-to-wire blowout win.
“I think it definitely set the tone,” he said that night. “That’s what I tried to do. I know every night when the game starts, my teammates are looking at me as a leader of the team.”
As their season closed Saturday in a Game 6 loss in Toronto, his teammates again had their eyes on their leader, this time with him getting up and walking off the podium before Khris Middleton could finish answering a question.
It was a bad look, the likely MVP of the NBA getting up and bolting in the aftermath of defeat. That he was even up there was a bit of a surprise. After the Bucks’ previous three losses, Antetokounmpo refused to speak at the postgame podium as players of his stature do, instead speaking from inside the team’s locker room.
It’s a sour ending for Antetokounmpo, a player who still has room to grow on the court, showing that there’s still work to be done off of it.
He’s as long as Shaquille O’Neal was wide, a player who can move with force and agility, the rare combination of a dominant scorer and a defensive stopper. Coaches rave about his work ethic, his drive to be great. Teammates marvel at how clear the paths are for Antetokounmpo to become better.
Antetokounmpo has two years left before he’s a free agent — and he’s eligible for a super-max extension following next season. Players of his caliber don’t usually stay in places like Milwaukee and teams around the NBA have already begun to set their rosters with an eye toward his free agency.
He’s great today and maybe he’ll be the greatest in the near future.
“I will say Giannis is going to get better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said after the Game 6 loss. “I like to think for us and to be excited about his future at 24 — I mean, it’s just the easy narrative that this is part of Giannis’ [growth]. But I think the thing that makes Giannis unique and exciting is in our minds, we feel like he’s going to get a lot better. At 24 some guys are — I don’t want to say they are who they are — and some of the great ones at 24 were the same at 30 and 32 and so on and so forth. Giannis, we feel like, has got a lot of room to grow.”
An average three-point shooter in the NBA made 35.5% from deep. Antetokounmpo made 25.6% of his in the regular season and 32.7% in the playoffs. That’s the most obvious space where Antetokounmpo can grow.
He’ll benefit from his experiences against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, too.
“Obviously when you’re up 2-0, that doesn’t mean nothing. You’ve got to learn how to come out and close out games, especially after Game 3,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to get better as a team, and we’ve got to get better individually. I think it’s just the start of a long journey. We’re going to get better. We’re going to come back next year and believe in who we are, believe in what we’ve built this year and hopefully we can be in the same situation and be the ones moving forward.”
If they get in this situation again, Antetokounmpo will have to be even better. The defensive force he played with in Game 6, when he erased shots at the rim by the Raptors brave enough to test him, that has to be done more consistently.
He has to be more comfortable at the free-throw line when the stakes are highest. It was unusual to see someone with such long arms short-arm almost every one of his shots from the line over the final four games of the series, when he made only 17 of 36 free throws.
He’s got to make more big plays in big moments, like Leonard, who has already played in and won the NBA Finals trophy.
“You can tell,” Antetokounmpo said of Leonard’s experiences. “You can tell from the way he was playing. And not just in this series; in the previous series also. The way he plays, he has so much patience. He knows what he’s going to do. He has confidence in himself. And he has the experience. He’s been here before.”
Budenholzer is right — this being a step along the way for Antetokounmpo is the easy narrative. But it’s a step so many other greats had to take, whether it was LeBron James running into the Boston Celtics or Michael Jordan ramming heads with the Detroit Pistons.
The next time Antetokounmpo is on this stage, he’s got to be better, both as a player and as a leader. As he walked off that podium Saturday, he has to know that. And the rest of the NBA understands he’ll come back next season even stronger.