The thought of missing out even just a part of action in the NBA Finals must be gnawing at Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After two-straight MVP campaigns ended with early exits, Antetokounmpo has finally advanced to the championship round. Unfortunately, a hyperextended left knee suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals has kept him sidelined for the past two games. As of this writing, he remains doubtful for the NBA Finals opener, and while he has done some court work his status will become clearer as game time approaches.
In what is now the biggest moment of his career, the Greek Freak would not want to sit still. Being four wins away from an NBA title can be so near yet so far, with an injury making things doubly worse. His competitive spirit and the thought of his injury made for a slightly subdued celebration, but we all know he had bigger things in mind.
Prior to the knee injury, Antetokounmpo had been averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and nearly a block and a steal per game. His field goal percentage (.551) may have been better than his free throw percentage (.537), but his overall production and the likelihood that he will continue to do so in these finals will put him in some elite company.
Stats aside, the story of his postseason would be how he exorcised his playoff demons. While he does have teammates that are more than capable of contributing, there was a different air in the 2019-2020 Defensive Player of the Year’s approach.
His stats may say otherwise, but he didn’t have to do everything to tire himself out. Doing so allowed him to pick his spots while keeping the defense on his toes. Antetokounmpo still had “point forward” duties but having Jrue Holiday allowed him to utilize his off-ball abilities and exert more energy on attacking from different spots on the court. Attacking from the post, midrange, and at times the 3-point line (when he doesn’t take too many shots there) adds layers to the Milwaukee Bucks’ attack and closing in on him will only invite a kick out to an open teammate.
During this postseason run, Antetokounmpo was able to avenge last season’s loss to the Miami Heat and put up strong numbers to take down the Brooklyn Nets. The five-time All-Star was also on his way to dominating the feisty Atlanta Hawks until disaster struck.
Him sitting out has its merits, especially if the Bucks are thinking about the long-term implications of aggravating the injury. Knees can take a significant time to recover, and if another physical specimen in Kristaps Porzingis is to be considered, that time can stretch on for years. Derrick Rose’s knee problems also come to mind and his prolonged recovery could also give the Bucks’ medical staff some cause for pause when it comes to their prized star.
The team’s cautious approach also shows that they would prefer that he be healthy as he enters his prime. Doing so would not only extend Milwaukee’s title window, but it also shows how much they value their franchise cornerstone, and rightly so. They’ve finally surrounded him with complementary pieces in Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez so now the focus is on his health.
The injury clearly threw a wrench into Antetokounmpo’s plans, and while his teammates have done well in covering for him, their efforts can only do so much against a healthy and dangerous opponent in the Phoenix Suns. More games without Giannis also means more game tape for the Suns to use and scout the shorthanded Bucks to find weaknesses that they take advantage of.
When Antetokounmpo does return, there will be some rust, and Phoenix will likely take advantage of that. A minutes restriction is on the table and while that could limit his on court contributions, his presence alone could alter the Suns’ defensive schemes. Deandre Ayton is athletic in his own right, but he can’t guard the Greek Freak alone. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder are smaller and will only be able to do so much before they foul him, or foul out. Antetokounmpo will draw double-teams consistencly, perhaps even triple teams, and that opens things up for his teammates. If the last two games are any indication, they now have the confidence to knock down shots when the need arises.
Giannis Antetokounmpo in the finals has now turned into a reality after nearly a decade-long journey that began in the quaint gyms of Greece and continues in the bright lights of Fiserv Forum. While he will certainly return in the series, the Milwaukee Bucks must manage that delicate balance of getting him to a better condition and having him on the court for must-win games.
They’re much better with him on the court than with him on the sidelines, but we’ll have to see how much he will be able to contribute.