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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Beyond Numbers

In Game 3 of the Bucks’ series with the Raptors, the Milwaukee unicorn did things that won’t show up in the box score, but only helped build his legend

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

You’re going to see this Giannis Antetokounmpo elbow block on a lot of highlight reels:

He blocked Norman Powell’s shot with his elbow. Plays like this only solidify my conspiracy that Antetokounmpo is an alien. I believe. We’re so often left speechless by Giannis’s gaudy highlights and box scores that it usually doesn’t take much more than a glance at the stats to comprehend his greatness. This season, he became only the sixth player since 1975–76 to average at least 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, and Kevin Durant.

On Thursday, Giannis had a statistically ordinary performance (at least by his standards), but was part of his team’s extraordinary night: The Bucks won 104–77, giving them a 2–1 series lead over the Raptors. The elbow block will make the highlight reels, but there was a deeper level to Antetokounmpo’s game on Thursday. Giannis made big plays that might not show up in the box score, but are just as vital as his coast-to-coast dunks, passes in transition, and elbow blocks.

This dude is a solar flare. Look at how his hard cut straight into Patrick Patterson causes confusion for Toronto. P.J. Tucker gets spun around realizing Giannis, who scores an otherworldly 1.5 points per possession on cuts, has penetrated the paint. This action frees Michael Beasley for an open 3, putting the Bucks up 20.

“We’re not gonna live and die by the 3, but the intent of getting the ball in the paint and finding an open guy, sharing the ball, it’s fun to watch,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said after the game. “You can’t just lock in one guy. If Giannis is gonna have three guys [on him], that means someone’s open.” The Bucks shot 12-of-23 from downtown on the night, including a pair from Giannis; one of them came on a sideline out-of-bounds play:

Kidd often uses Antetokounmpo as an inbounder because he’s such a reliable passer and dynamic scorer. But when he gets points off those actions early in the game, it can be used as a decoy later on:

This is virtually the same set, but instead of juking left for a 3, Giannis cuts hard to the right, once again attracting multiple defenders, and leaving Matthew Dellavedova totally open for a triple. In the box score, the play will be recorded as an assist for Thon Maker, with the points going to Delly, but Giannis’s cut made the whole play work.

I understand why we obsess over the numbers, but that Giannis action is more important than the simple Maker pass; and that’s what makes statistical analysis so difficult in the public sphere. We don’t have numbers that account for cloaked actions. The same is true for defense. Giannis had 24 games this season in which he had at least two steals and two blocks. Only six players have done that as many times this century. Just as important though, are moments like this:

Giannis quickly closes out on Serge Ibaka, and slides his feet to prevent a drive to the rim, then hedges Kyle Lowry’s pick-and-roll to prevent him from taking a tight angle toward the rim. Antetokounmpo won’t get statistical credit for Lowry hoisting a long 3-pointer at the end of the clock, but he was integral to the result. Possessions like this one set the tone for the rest of the game. “I thought our defense was very active,” Kidd said. “Guys were picking each other up and we were rebounding the ball.”

On Thursday, DeMar DeRozan scored only eight points with no made field goals. Lowry scored only 13 points on 10 shots. They’re already two of the 20 least efficient playoff scorers since 1980, and the Bucks aren’t helping their cause. Milwaukee is playing fundamentally sound defense with crisp rotations, using long limbs to disturb the ball handler. It was the team’s best defensive performance of the series, if not the entire season.

“Defensively, we played really hard,” Giannis said after the game. “Our goal was to keep the score low and we did. They scored only 77 points. By doing that we’re going to have a chance to be in the game.” The Bucks will get historic statistical games from Antetokounmpo, especially if their playoff run continues into the next round, but his nights are every bit as special even if you ignore the stat line altogether.