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Giannis Antetokounmpo Has Reached the NBA’s Mountaintop

The Bucks star carried the franchise to its first title in 50 years with one of the most jaw-dropping performances in NBA Finals history. Not only did he deliver on his championship promise, he delivered on everything he has said on his long, winding journey to the peak of his powers—and the sport.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The future swept into the room like a spring breeze, graceful, hopeful, teeming with possibility. He was 18 years old, tall enough to need to duck his head to avoid injury entering the media pen at Barclays Center, and narrow enough that when he turned sideways to start climbing the stairs to the podium, you nearly lost sight of him.

Only nearly, though. Because when the future walked into that room after becoming the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA draft—an international prospect shrouded in mystery who arrived stateside looking like two bold-faced exclamation points in a two-tone suit—you couldn’t take your eyes off of him.

The Greek teenager of Nigerian descent thanked his mother, his father, his brothers, his coaches; he said he still couldn’t believe this was happening, that it felt like a dream come true. But along with the astonishment and joy, he projected a seriousness of purpose. No, he told us, he wouldn’t be a draft-and-stash prospect who’d stay overseas for a few years. He would join the Milwaukee Bucks immediately. It was time to start making his mark.

“This is not the end,” he told those of us sitting in that interview room. “It’s only the beginning, you know, to a very long road that maybe someday will give me the opportunity to make my NBA team successful. But I know I’m not ready. I have a lot of work ahead of me. But I’m not afraid. I will give everything on the court, in the gym, and I will prove to the Milwaukee Bucks that they made the right choice.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo satisfied that burden of proof before he won his first MVP trophy. But on Tuesday, he removed any lingering doubts that any naysayer could ever even conceive, turning in one of the greatest and most dominant individual performances in NBA Finals history to keep another promise he made—this one after his first season, as a spindly rising sophomore fresh off averaging 6.8 points per game on a 15-win cellar dweller.

He came. He ascended. He stayed. “I just … I couldn’t leave,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “There was a job that had to be finished.” And in Game 6 against the Suns, eight years after beginning his journey up the “very long road” that he’d soon learn was actually a mountain, the same one that every all-time great must endeavor to climb, Giannis Antetokounmpo reached the peak—of his powers, of his career, of the sport itself.

Fifty points, 14 rebounds, and five blocked shots to secure a 105-98 win and his first NBA championship, a title 50 years in the making. Bucks in motherfuckin’ six.

It’s easy to forget now, amid the confetti, champagne spray, and cigar smoke, but 16 days ago, we didn’t know whether Antetokounmpo would even suit up to start this series after hyperextending his left knee and missing the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals. But after a feel-out Game 1 in which Chris Paul and Devin Booker ran roughshod over the Bucks’ switching defense while he knocked off the rust, Antetokounmpo was, by a ludicrous distance, the best player in these Finals.

In games 2 and 3, Giannis joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to pop for 40 points and 10 rebounds in consecutive Finals games. In Game 4, he capped a 26-14-8 outing with one of the most remarkable defensive plays in postseason history, covering 15 feet in the blink of an eye to swat a Deandre Ayton dunk at the summit, seal the win, and tie the series. In Game 5, he outdid himself, sprinting the length of the court after Jrue Holiday’s game-icing steal to finish one of the most ridiculous and consequential alley-oops the NBA has ever seen to put a cherry on top of a 32-9-6 performance and take a 3-2 lead.

When you’ve gone on a run like that, how the hell can you top it? The answer, evidently: tie a 63-year-old record for the most points scored in a Finals clincher; notch just the seventh 50-ball in Finals history; become the first player to score 40 points, grab 10 rebounds, and block five shots in a playoff game in 20 years, and the first player ever to put up 50-10-5 in a playoff game.

Ten days ago, Giannis hung a 41-13-6 on Phoenix in 38 minutes in Game 3, which stood as both the best playoff performance of his career and, according to John Hollinger’s game score metric—which aims to estimate how productive a player was in a specific game, sort of like single-game PER—one of the dozen most individually dominant Finals performances in nearly 40 years. Well, game score says that Giannis’s Game 6 was tied for the second-most individually dominant display in that span—behind only LeBron James’s monster Game 6 in the Cavaliers’ 2016 Finals comeback against the Warriors.

It wasn’t just the production that made Giannis the inarguable choice for Finals MVP, though; it was the omnipresence. Antetokounmpo loomed over the proceedings throughout these Finals, absolutely lording over every second. And that included the rare ones he spent on the bench: Two weeks removed from his knee injury, Giannis sat for just 49 total minutes over six games, with the Bucks getting outscored by 16 points in that span. He was an ever-present matchup nightmare, absolutely decimating every Phoenix defender besides Deandre Ayton—Giannis shot 75 percent from the floor when matched up against non-Ayton Suns, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ defensive matchup data—and, by the end of the series, he’d overwhelmed Ayton, too.

He was relentless in attacking the basket, whether posting up on the left block, rolling hard to the rim after setting a screen, or rampaging the length of the court in transition, and he was brutally effective at all of them, scoring an absurd 22.3 points per game in the paint in the Finals on 76.1 percent shooting. He averaged just under 1.25 points per paint touch in the series, according to Second Spectrum’s optical tracking data; that’s pretty good, considering the best offenses in the league during the regular season produced a tick above 1.17 points per possession. He was at his most determined and effective when Milwaukee needed him most in Game 6: After the Bucks blew a 13-point first-quarter lead with dismal execution and shot making in the second, Giannis came out of halftime like a bat out of hell, making five shots in the paint and getting to the line for seven free throws on his way to his second 20-point quarter of the series, giving a previously lifeless offense a badly needed jolt.

And in the most important game of his life, Giannis refused to bow in fear of his greatest weakness—his free throws. Despite shooting just 55.6 percent on his attempts entering Game 6, he battering-rammed the Suns’ interior defense into splinters, leaving them with no recourse but to foul, and then confidently stepped to the stripe and shot a superb 17-for-19, the most free throws he’s ever hit in a playoff game, and his highest percentage in a postseason contest in which he’d racked up at least 10 attempts.

Giannis bossed the game on the other end, too. He functioned as a gap-plugging help defender, a stopper capable of sticking with Paul and Booker on the perimeter, a nuclear rim deterrent, and a physical match for Ayton who allowed Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to roll out smaller lineups that replaced stalwart center Brook Lopez with key reserves Pat Connaughton (who turned in 30 killer minutes per game as the no. 1 wing off the bench) and Bobby Portis (now supremely stamped as a saucer-eyed folk hero after kicking in 16 points in 23 minutes in Game 6). In the fourth quarter, with the Bucks clinging to a slim lead and the Suns raging against the dying of the light, it felt like Antetokounmpo was everywhere on defense, forcing miscues with the mere threat of his activity, and inhaling defensive rebounds to finish possessions and keep Phoenix chasing.

In the biggest clash the franchise had seen in a half-century—a contest in which Game 5 hero Jrue Holiday resumed his offensive struggles, missing 15 of his 19 field goal attempts, and in which Giannis’s longtime running buddy Khris Middleton had a quiet 11 points midway through the fourth quarter—Antetokounmpo was a game-changing constant. He delivered in every quarter, in every facet, in every moment, on both ends of the floor, and in so doing, he delivered Milwaukee its first championship in 50 years.

The performance punctuated one of the greatest Finals runs the league has ever seen: 35.2 points on an obscene .658 true shooting percentage, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.2 steals in 39.8 minutes per game. It also represented the culmination of one of the most incredible journeys in modern sports history—one that began with immigrants being shunned by their adopted homeland, a family selling trinkets in the street to make ends meet, and brothers sharing a pair of shoes as they learned a game that could give them a chance at a different life.

“This should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams,” Antetokounmpo said. “No matter whatever you feel when you’re down, when you don’t think it’s going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career—might be basketball, might be anything—just believe in what you’re doing and keep working.

“Don’t let nobody tell you what you can be and what you cannot do. People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight, and I’m a freaking champion. … Eight years ago, eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal will come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here, sitting at the top of the top.”

It’s a journey aided by a pair of post-draft growth spurts, the addition of nearly 50 pounds of muscle mass, a boundary-expanding stint as Jason Kidd’s developmental point guard, and the arrival of Coach Bud with a fresh set of ideas on how to unlock one of the most jaw-dropping athletic marvels the league has ever seen. A journey marked by postseason frustrations—a pair of first-round exits under Kidd, squandering a 2-0 lead to Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, the implosion against the Heat in the bubble—and Antetokounmpo’s decision to extend his contract in Milwaukee rather than seek greener pastures because, as he told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes after the 2020 playoff loss to Miami, “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it.”

And now, it’s one that has reached the destination that Giannis and the Bucks could scarcely have dreamed of back at that 2013 draft—an NBA championship, won by a pair of stars in Antetokounmpo and Middleton who have spent eight years together in Milwaukee, a glaring anomaly in an era when teams rise and fall, come together and break apart, at increasingly breakneck speeds.

“Coming back, I was like, ‘This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us,’” Antetokounmpo told reporters on Tuesday. “Even when we lost, the city was still—went outside and you know, obviously, I wanted to get the job done. But that’s my stubborn side. It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. ... I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship.

“But this is the hard way to do it,” he added, slapping the podium for emphasis. “And this is the way to do it, and we did it. We fucking did it. We did it, man.”

They did it, and he did it, and now the list of players with MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP trophies is three names long. Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and now Giannis Antetokounmpo. He rubs shoulders with immortals now, because few players in the history of the sport have ever competed at as high a level as he did over the past two weeks. The stick-thin teen who looked like the future eight years ago stayed in the moment, and he absolutely owned it; it’s his, now and always. He’s made his mark. He’s proved the Bucks right. And you still can’t take your eyes off of him.