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The Bucks Joined the NBA’s Elite Around the Time Giannis Blew the Warriors Off Their Own Floor

How do you know when an upstart contender hits another level? It looks a lot like what Antetokounmpo did in Thursday’s second quarter at Golden State.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a moment when it all lines up—when what you’ve been imagining and theorizing about becomes real, and all that’s left is to just sit back and watch. It happened at Oracle Arena on Thursday, with about five minutes left in the second quarter.

The Milwaukee Bucks held a slim 44-41 lead over the Golden State Warriors. Through the game’s first 19 minutes, the two heavyweights—in one corner, the sport’s dominant dynasty and the West’s top seed; in the other, a challenger with the East’s best point differential—had fought in a phone booth, with neither side able to get hot from behind the 3-point arc or create more than two possessions’ worth of separation. And then, with 5:01 to go in the first half, Giannis Antetokounmpo checked back in, and everything clicked:

Antetokounmpo promptly tapped the ball away from Kevin Durant and raced down the court for a fast-break layup, missed it thanks to the backtracking of Klay Thompson, and then calmly cleaned it up for a putback dunk.

He didn’t slow down from there. He drew defensive attention to create a short runner for Pat Connaughton. He grabbed a defensive board and pushed the ball in transition, where he’s as unstoppable a weapon as the sport has seen, and forced Golden State to put him on the foul line. He drove directly through Kevon Looney as if Kevon Looney were less a 6-foot-9, 220-pound professional center, and more of a yellow traffic light. He carved his way to the cup for a loping finger roll, then spiked a Durant layup with extreme prejudice on the other end.

All of a sudden, that three-point lead ballooned to 15. The Bucks had just crushed the two-time-defending NBA champions in their own gym. By the end of the barrage, Antetokounmpo had totaled nine points, two rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block in barely three minutes. On a court also occupied by two in-their-prime NBA MVPs, he was the best player—by far.

Giannis’s final line wasn’t among his greatest hits: 24 points on 7-for-16 shooting, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks, two steals, and two turnovers in 26 minutes. It might have been, had he played a second in the fourth quarter. But he didn’t need to. The Bucks hung 105 points in three quarters on the Warriors despite making only eight of their 31 3-point attempts.

An arena that’s grown accustomed to seeing the hometown team render the final period meaningless got to witness the visitors insisting on 12 minutes of garbage time. After the 134-111 pummeling, Antetokounmpo verbalized the message he and the Bucks had just sent: “We’ve arrived.”

By now, you probably know the reasons for that arrival. New head coach Mike Budenholzer has overhauled the Bucks’ schemes, emphasizing spacing and 3-point shooting on offense, and trying to force opponents to take lower-value midrange jumpers on the defensive end. The early returns have been remarkable: Milwaukee ranks second in the NBA in points scored per possession and third in points allowed per possession, the only team in the league in the top five in both categories, and is off to its best start in 47 years.

The additions of Brook Lopez (who is loving life right now), Ersan Ilyasova, and Connaughton (15 points, four rebounds, two assists, two bodies off the bench on Thursday) have allowed Budenholzer to roll out lineups with shooting all over the court. But while the bomb-away edict has meant strong starts for shooters like Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, more space also means more opportunities for ball handlers to cook. Enter Eric Bledsoe, who isn’t always the most reliable starting point guard but who was fantastic on Thursday, slicing through the Dubs en route to a game-high 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting with six assists and four rebounds:

Bledsoe also helped limit Curry to 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting before he left midway through the third quarter with a left adductor strain. Overall, Milwaukee held Golden State to 79 points and 6-for-21 shooting from 3-point land in the competitive portion of the game, and dampened Durant to a muffled 17 points on 15 shots, with six turnovers mitigating his nine assists.

With Draymond Green out of the lineup nursing a sprained right toe, the Warriors buckled in the face of the Bucks’ length, physicality, and aggression. Milwaukee straight up took the champions, leaving no doubt, and leaving plenty of slack jaws.

At the center of it all, as always, was Giannis. He’s not really the most natural fit in a five-out, shoot-it-as-soon-as-you-get-it offense—he is currently shooting a crisp 8.7 percent from 3-point range—but he’s the engine that makes it all go, because his presence induces defensive panic on every possession.

Knowing that Antetokounmpo can get to the rim in two steps from virtually anywhere inside of half court, and that he is shooting 73 percent once he gets there, leaves even well-drilled and well-intentioned defenders cheating a step his way. That creates all the opening he needs to ping the ball around the perimeter, stay one step ahead of the rotations of scrambling defenders, and find great looks. Most nights, those looks come from outside, with Milwaukee ranking second in the league in 3-point attempts per game and first in makes. But as the Curry-led Warriors know better than anyone, when you stretch a defense out far enough, it snaps, and from there, you can get whatever you want: The Bucks scored a season-high 84 points in the paint at Oracle.

The Bucks remain an imperfect team still in the embryonic stages of adjusting to a brand-new set of principles. Opponents with pull-up 3-point-shooting ball handlers and floor-spacing big men can exploit their conservative defense; their two losses through the first 11 games this season have come to a Celtics team that made a franchise-record 24 3-pointers on 55 attempts (and felt like it could’ve fired even more) and a Blazers squad that went 17-for-43 from deep, with six different players making multiple 3s. Bledsoe and Brogdon can be hit-or-miss in the backcourt. It remains to be seen how well the reserve wing corps of Connaughton, Tony Snell, and rookie Donte DiVincenzo will hold up. It’s a long season.

Still, it’s impossible not to come away from these first few weeks of Bucks basketball astonished by just how much better they look under Budenholzer than they did before his arrival. Which, as it happens, is a change that Milwaukee’s most recent hosts can relate to.

“Very similar to four years ago here,” Curry told reporters on Wednesday. “A change of scenery sometimes helps. You get a little boost of energy, a little shift of focus and perspective, and that little bit of difference can unlock something.”

So far, it looks like it’s unlocked Antetokounmpo, allowing him to be the most fully formed and devastating version of himself we’ve ever seen—one capable of not just snatching a game out of the hands of two of the five best players in the world, but doing it so stoically that how wild it is barely registers. We’re not scaremongering; this is really happening. The Bucks have arrived. Giannis is here. The future is now.