Giannis Antetokounmpo is finally an NBA Champion.
The 26-year-old put the Milwaukee Bucks on his broad shoulders in Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals, leading the way in their 105-98 closeout win over the Phoenix Suns. They rallied back from their second 0-2 deficit in this postseason, winning the last four games of the series to clinch the title on their home floor at the Fiserv Forum.
Antetokounmpo carried the franchise that picked him 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft to its first championship since 1971 and was deservedly named the Finals MVP.
He put up strong numbers throughout the first five games of the series, despite initially being tagged as questionable before Game 1 after hyperextending his knee midway through the Easter Conference Finals.
In the clincher, Antetokounmpo took it up by a notch and scored 50 points on 64% shooting from the field. The Greek Freak was particularly phenomenal in the Bucks’ third period run, scoring 20 points in the quarter to give them the lead for good after trailing the Suns by five at halftime.
He also collected 14 rebounds, two assists, and five blocks to complete one of the best all-around NBA Finals closeout performances in history. Antetokounmpo became just the seventh player ever to record a 50-point NBA Finals game and is the only one to ever do it with at least 10 rebounds and five blocks.
However, it was his efficiency from the free throw line that was the most astonishing statistic of the evening.
A notoriously bad free throw shooter with a 55.6% clip in the postseason coming into Game 6, the five-time NBA All Star made almost all his attempts when it mattered most. Antetokounmpo saved his best for the biggest game of his career and calmly converted on 17 of his 19 free throws in Game 6.
He went on to finish his first NBA Finals averaging 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, five assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game.
Antetokounmpo has just completed his eighth year in the league, but his performance in these NBA Finals has already secured his place as one of the best players, not just in the league today, but of all time with his ever-growing resume and trophy collection.
For comparison’s sake, Antetokounmpo is right on schedule when put side-by-side with basketball’s legends. The four-time NBA Champion LeBron James, who has a strong case in the “Greatest of All Time” debate and is still regarded as one of the best players in the world at the age of 36, won his first title a year later into his career than Antetokounmpo. James won his maiden NBA championship with the Miami Heat in 2012, his ninth year in the league, at the age of 27.
Meanwhile, Chicago Bulls legend and six-time champion Michael Jordan won his first title in his seventh season in the NBA back in 1991, but he was already 27 years old. By winning this year’s Finals MVP, Antetokounmpo joined Jordan in an exclusive club as the only players to be named the league MVP multiple times, the Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP
Securing this season’s Larry O’Brien trophy is the culmination of what has been a crucial year in the relationship between Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
With his current contract expiring at the end of the 2021 season, last season’s disappointing second round loss to the Heat triggered speculation that Antetokounmpo would test the free agency market. To their credit, Milwaukee’s front office reacted to the threat of losing their superstar by promising to improve his supporting cast and pulling through.
The Bucks added multiple-time All-NBA Defensive Team guard Jrue Holiday in the offseason to help alleviate the load carried by Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. They willingly took on Holiday’s pricey contract which has a player option that can extend it up until 2025 when he will already be 35 years old.
The financial commitment that the Bucks made to Holiday, who is a marked improvement over their previous starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, was enough to help convince Antetokounmpo to forgo testing the market altogether. He quashed all the rumors of him moving to a bigger market and signed a $228 million extension with the Bucks even before the 2021 campaign began, avoiding what could have been a major distraction for the team this season.
No one though, except the greatest of optimists and their most die-hard fans, could have expected that the Bucks’ hefty financial investments would have paid off this soon. Milwaukee flew under the radar during the regular season and finished with just the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, but their first round sweep of the team that sent them home last season, the Heat, gave them a renewed sense of confidence that carried over to the next rounds.
They emerged victorious from a seven-game classic against the Brooklyn Nets where they also trailed 0-2 in the series before dispatching the Atlanta Hawks in six games to advance to the NBA Finals even after Antetokounmpo missed the last two contests of the Eastern Conference Finals following his knee injury.
Antetokounmpo’s extension will kick in when the ‘21-’22 NBA Season tips off later this year where the Bucks will take the floor as the defending NBA champions. The road to a second consecutive title though will not be easy.
The star-studded Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers should be fully recovered from the injuries that plagued them this postseason. The young Suns and Hawks, with their experiences from this year’s deep playoff runs tucked under their belt, will also be raring for another go at a championship.
For now, the Bucks can celebrate the end of their title drought with renewed confidence that their alliance with Antetokounmpo, now an NBA Champion, is most likely secure for the long run.
They have now made it to the top of the mountain together and the burden of winning a championship has now been lifted from this franchise and its future Hall of Famer. That sense of relief, coupled with the form that Antetokounmpo flashed in his first title run, could indicate that the best of this partnership is yet to come.