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Giannis Passes the LeBron Test

The Bucks and their young star look like they truly belong

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best players in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee: This is happening. After narrowly losing to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday the 19th, beating Orlando twice, and losing a close one to the Raptors, the Bucks drop-kicked the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 118–101 behind the kind of performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo that you fold up and put in your inside pocket so that you never ever forget it. The Bucks are 8–8, and this week they are starting to look like a team that won’t see the wrong side of .500 for a while.

If you just watched this game on Vine, you saved yourself a lot of time and saw some Thor dunks …

A rude putback:

Kevin Love climbing the route tree like 2002 Kliff Kingsbury:

And Thon Maker reading The Book of Common Prayer over the urn holding Chris Andersen’s remains.

But you would have missed the subtleties. Let me just say at the top, if you have the ways and means, please watch the Bucks on the local Milwaukee feed, because part-time play-by-play man Gus Johnson has found his basketball muse. Everyone player has a nickname (Malcolm Brogdon is the “Commander-in-Chief” and Greg Monroe is “The Moose”), and every dunk will save the polar ice caps from melting. Tuesday’s Cavs clash in Wisconsin had a postseason energy, with Cleveland very clearly trying to go about its November business, and the Bucks very much trying to make a statement.

Giannis was the noun, verb, and exclamation point. He had 34 points (tied for his career high), five assists, five steals, and 12 boards. Giannis’s much-hyped move to point guard has kind of obscured what a truck he is around the hoop. The dunks were eye-popping, but so was his play on the block — a sumptuous combo of bully ball and ballet that saw multiple Cavs defenders bouncing off him and onto the ground. He is no longer a highlight-only player, or a once-a-week guy. Giannis is doing the very thing that separates cool players from great players: He is bringing it every night.

The season stats are absurd: 22.8 points, 8.6 boards, 5.9 assists, and a PER of 25-plus. He is the point forward who truly plays point guard and forward. And if he ever learns to shoot the 3 he will be essentially unguardable. The ripple effect of Khris Middleton’s injury — which went from bad to gruesome — is that Giannis is now the alpha of this Bucks team, and his teammates seem to know it.

This season has seen early separation between all the teams we know are going to be in or around the conference finals — the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, Clippers, etc. — and those that are just pretending. The real entertainment is in the teams that are figuring out who they want to be, and how good they are. And there’s no better way to find out who is for real out of that latter class than by watching them play members of the former.

I am now fully enamored with this Milwaukee team, which features a long, gangly trinity of young talent (Giannis, Jabari Parker, and John Henson), compelling youngsters (Thon, Tony Snell, and the Commander), and a suicide squad of vets (Jason Terry, Michael Beasley, Matthew Dellavedova, and Greg Monroe). I wouldn’t bet the change in my pocket that Jason Kidd can keep this all together (he just stopped an inexplicable Monroe freeze out), but damn it if there weren’t some 2009–10 Oklahoma City vibes on Tuesday. These guys are ready, and as Cleveland found out, they are not going to wait their turn.

Runner-up: Anthony Davis

Read Chau, O’Connor, and Tjarks. New Orleans beat the Lakers 105–88. It was Davis’s third game this season with at least 40 points and 15 boards. Did Alvin Gentry need him out there with the Pelicans up big for all of the fourth? You take the good times when they come.

Real Runner-up: Paul Pierce

Stay gold, Ponyboy.