Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals was not a must-win for the Bucks, but the urgency of the team could still be felt. If they lost, they would be forced to play a Game 7 on the road, and while the momentum was on their side, there is no use tempting fate in a series where every game is so momentous.
Of course, the Bucks won that game, getting their first championship in 50 seasons. And while it may be trite to say that Giannis Antetokounmpo wouldn’t let Milwaukee lose that night, performances like the one he presented Tuesday night in Game 6 are the reason clichés like that exist. It was the culmination of his growth as a player, with Giannis playing basketball and leading his team to a championship in a way that no one else could have.
When you see Giannis play, maybe the first thing you notice is his step. Even taking into account his large frame, Antetokounmpo has outrageously long limbs, and each step he takes covers an even more disproportionate amount of space. He can cover the entire court in just a few steps, making each counterattack seem like a series of trips, as fans are not used to seeing 94 feet traversed that way.
On the half court, he uses that same gait to disarm defenders who aren’t prepared to face a player who uses his body and the space his length affords him that way. Every run to the rim, every Eurostep, every turning movement in the restricted area takes a standard shape and reinvents it. You’ve seen these plays before, yes, but not like this. While still recognizable, the old moves are replayed thanks to his inventiveness and unique playstyle.
When Antetokounmpo entered the league, he was like a pack of potential report, a mysterious man on whom any number of wishes or abilities could be projected. As the 15th pick in the 2013 Draft, he was a low-risk roll of the dice by a team that saw something in him, even if it would have been difficult for anyone to say exactly what they envisioned. He seemed to be one of many players selected more for his potential than his current abilities. It’s a strategy that rarely works, but the rewards envisioned make top offices see it as a gamble that pays off year after year. You can teach a jump shot, but you can’t teach someone to have a 7’3 ”wingspan and a 40-inch vertical jump, you think.
It’s impossible to overstate the amount Antetokounmpo has grown since that rookie season. There were tantalizing glimpses of what it could be, though it felt foolish to exaggerate them. Yet despite that growth, confirmed by nods from the All-NBA and MVP, there were still notable holes left in his game. His shooting form has gotten uglier as his career progresses and his free throws have become less reliable.
In previous generations, few would worry too much about this. Yet in a league built around 3-point shooting and obsessed with efficiency and optimization, these concerns continue to take a back seat. Not even two MVPs and two years in a row leading the Bucks to the best record in the league could allay these concerns. All that mattered in the eyes of the critics was that Milwaukee had lost in the postseason, that Giannis just didn’t seem to have what it took to win it all. He was too lethal to be called limited, but the consensus seemed to be that, in postseason fires, these flaws mattered more than the abilities he had.
An important component of what makes Antetokounmpo so exciting is that for all his skill and success, he often seems unrefined. This is not a claim that he lacks basketball skills, although he does not employ traditional domination methods; They are simply not necessary in light of his other rarer gifts. What Giannis needed to fully assert himself and win an NBA championship was not augmenting his skills with a more reliable three-point shot or adopting a new style that was more in line with conventional forms of play. Instead, he became more assertive, realizing that the title was his to claim. He just had to duck his head and get to the hoop. He may not be the best or most complete player in the NBA, but he is often the most dominant, and why demand that a player align himself with ideals when you have that?
Antetokounmpo shows here the virtue of staying true to one’s talents. At the same time, the weaknesses in his game were not eliminated, but they became irrelevant thanks to his ability to highlight his own strengths. He did not succeed by following a standard idea of what a modern star should be, but by forging his own path. It is a unique one for him, combining retro ideas of post-dominance with conceptions of space and movement that could be revolutionary if there was only someone else capable of following in his footsteps.
Progress is not usually linear, but you often find yourself wishing it was. Real life, with its infinite variables, people with their unique combination of motivations, desires, and weaknesses, keeps any attempts at systematized analysis inherently tentative. Progress, growth, decline: all are more fortuitous processes, characterized by general trends and scattered points rather than straight lines. Giannis didn’t unfold in the way that anyone could have predicted or expected. Few would have imagined that he would have been an MVP or Finals MVP and many would have rejected the idea that he could win a title without making wholesale adjustments to his game. And yet, by more fully committing to what makes him the player that he is, he achieved his biggest victory yet.