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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Legacy Is Far from Written

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Less than a year after dropping 50 points in a closeout game that sealed his Finals MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s follow-up bid is over.

In a wildly hyped Game 7 against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were dismissed surprisingly easily, 109-81. With his co-star Khris Middleton sidelined nursing an MCL sprain, Antetokounmpo recorded his fifth straight double-double and second straight 20-20 game. It took 26 shots to get his 25 points on Sunday.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t a legacy defining moment. It’s probably not even legacy-altering.

Years from now, we may look back on this as a hiccup on the way to a pantheon career. It might end up being the fuel that pushes him into discussions about the top 10 to 15 players all time.

It’s worth remembering that Giannis is 27 years old. LeBron James and Michael Jordan both won their first titles at that age. No one else in league history had two MVPs, a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year this young (Hakeem Olajuwon and MJ are the only other players to pull off that triple crown at any age).

But the details matter, so how should history judge Antetokounmpo’s 2022 playoff exit? 

He shot under 50 percent from the field in five of seven games against Boston and finished at 45.7 percent for the series, with an effective field-goal percentage of 51.6. That efficiency to get 33.9 points in a playoff series would be OK for plenty of players, but it’s 11.5 points shy of Antetokounmpo’s regular-season mark since the start of 2018-19. It’s not close to the 59.9 he put up in the 2021 postseason either.

Against a defense with multiple lengthy, switchy wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as mobile bigs like Grant Williams and Al Horford, Antetokounmpo had a hard time finding open shots. In an in-game interview during Game 6, Celtics coach Ime Udoka talked about the need to show him a crowd. And that’s exactly what Boston did all series.

Not only did the four above do a good job of staying in front of Antetokounmpo on his initial drives, he was stifled by multiple Celtics when he was able to get to the paint. By Game 7, Antetokounmpo appeared to be rushing everything, even layups and dunks around the rim that would typically be gimmes.

One year after it appeared that the “Giannis Wall” defensive strategy had been solved, Boston went all-in on it.

Mo Dakhil @MoDakhil_NBA

I know building a wall on Giannis is important but you can’t do so at the cost of letting Holiday walk into a three. Brown had a long way to go to get to Holiday too. <a href=”https://t.co/NehCss8ZCp”>pic.twitter.com/NehCss8ZCp</a>

And though there were occasional possessions where it burned them (like the one above), on balance, it worked.

Expecting that to be a harbinger of things to come for Giannis and his opponents may be foolhardy, though.

Sure, build a wall. It may be your best option, but Giannis typically has Middleton to kick it too. Not only is he one of the game’s better catch-and-shoot options, he can attack closeouts against a defense scrambled by Giannis. And he’s an underrated playmaker (his 5.9 assists per 75 possessions over the last two seasons ranks top 60 league-wide).

We also have nearly a decade of history to suggest that Antetokounmpo will learn and grow from what just happened.

As a rookie, nearly a third of Giannis’ shots were threes. Over the next few years, he turned into a put-your-head-down point forward. Coach Jason Kidd even tried him at the 1 for much of 2015-16. That laid the foundation for his playmaking. Prior to his MVP leap, he bulked up and became a Shaquille O’Neal-like battering ram around the rim. And this season, he just had his best campaign from the midrange.

Year after year, he adds things or improves on weaknesses. This summer, he might need to push the pendulum back just a bit to where he was a rookie. This certainly isn’t a suggestion that he abandon the game that made him a two-time MVP, but he’d benefit from more range against the few teams that can effectively build the “Giannis Wall.”

And that brings us to the other reason not to overreact. Everyone would love the defensive versatility possessed by the Celtics. It’s just not available in abundance, and it can take years to develop the ability and cohesion necessary to defend the way Boston does. Udoka is new to the job, but there’s plenty of continuity on this roster. There may not be another team in the league that can do to Giannis what the Celtics just did.

We can overreact to that, or we can wait and see what’s next.

He is, undoubtedly, among the most accomplished 27-year olds in NBA history. He has a statistical resume that stands up (and maybe even surpasses) some of the absolute best players in basketball history.

Earlier this month, Giannis’ numbers since the start of 2018-19 (when he won his first MVP) were pitted against the best four-year stretch of LeBron’s career in a blind poll. Giannis’ won.

A couple weeks later, HoopsHype‘s Twitter account inspired another blind poll. This time, it was the last four seasons from Giannis against Kevin Durant’s best four years. Giannis won again.

We’re hesitant to put the feats we’re seeing now on the same level of the greats of the past. That’s fine. But when you remove that potential bias by taking names off the numbers, Antetokounmpo is up there with just about anyone.

The statline is like prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with more assists. The developing midrange game gave him the same field-goal percentage on twos from 10 feet and out (42.2) as Kyrie Irving and Tyler Herro this season. The effects of Boston’s wall aside, his game inside is reminiscent of prime Shaq. One-on-one, there really isn’t anyone that can keep him away from the rim. On top of all that, he’s a dominant rebounder and near-seven-foot free safety who can be seemingly everywhere in individual defensive possessions.

And he’s 27 years old.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird won their last titles at 28 and 29, respectively. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t break through till he was 32. Jordan and LeBron secured their most recent championships at 34 and 35 (and LeBron’s still at it).

In today’s world of instant reactions, social media hits and near constant discussion of where every NBA star rests on the all-time ladder, it’s tempting to react to a second-round playoff loss like the one Giannis just suffered.

If the reaction is limited to how Antetokounmpo can grow from this, fine. Anything else is premature.

After all we’ve seen from Giannis over the first nine years of his career, there’s no way to know how high up that ladder he can climb.

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