Entering Thursday, it would have been difficult to imagine a more terrifying sight in the NBA than Giannis Antetokounmpo, powered by a full head of steam, driving straight toward the rim. Whether he chose to deceive with an elastic Euro step or lay waste to his defender with a dunk, the scenario seemed like arguably the most unstoppable in basketball. And yet, in Thursday night’s marquee matchup between the 24-4 Bucks and the 24-4 Lakers, Giannis produced an image that was even more frightening:
Giannis hitting deep 3s now.. pic.twitter.com/T2VtQFvtFi— gifdsports (@gifdsports) December 20, 2019
It was no fluke. After hitting his first 3 of the game at the 7:52 mark of the first quarter, Giannis hit another early in the second. And in the second half, he hit three more, including a pull-up from the left wing that he celebrated by winking and pretending to place a crown on his head.
Giannis knocks down his 5th 3 and he wants the crown. pic.twitter.com/oqFrDCiYjm— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) December 20, 2019
Giannis totaled 34 points in the Bucks’ 111-104 win, added 11 rebounds and seven assists, and finished with five 3s—a career high. This kind of performance has been brewing; Giannis has hit at least two 3s in seven of his last 10 games and is shooting 33.8 percent from 3 on the season. He’s also tied for the Bucks lead in 3-point attempts. But what made Thursday’s shots special was his lack of hesitation—and his range. Giannis’s attempts came from 28, 27, and 26 feet out, nearly at Steph Curry depth. And his confidence from beyond the arc—and all over the floor for that matter—led Milwaukee to victory in the season’s most anticipated matchup so far.
To understand how important this game was, look no further than Anthony Davis. During warm-ups, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel told reporters that he wasn’t sure if Davis, who sat out against the Pacers on Tuesday with an ankle injury, would play. Less than an hour before tip-off, the team announced that he would start. And he didn’t sit for a single minute in the second half.
The Lakers struggled early on. Davis and LeBron started 0-for-8 from the field, and LeBron’s first made field goal didn’t come until the 10-minute mark of the second quarter. What was supposed to be a titanic duel between two teams with top-five offenses and defenses looked like it would end up a defensive slugfest.
Instead, the Bucks offense exploded in the second quarter and never looked back. Giannis nearly outscored LeBron and Davis combined in the first half, and as he got hot from deep, the rest of the Bucks followed. Milwaukee shot 43.5 percent from 3 in the first half, and 41 percent on the night. The second-best offense in the league lived up to its billing.
The Lakers, for their part, were playing their 12th game on the road in their last 15 contests, and though Vogel called them a “no-excuse” team before the game, they weren’t able to match the Bucks’ energy. Their flaws, which have been hidden against lesser opponents, showed themselves. Milwaukee’s bench outscored L.A.’s 34-4, and the Lakers’ lack of a second off-the-dribble creator against an elite defense like the Bucks stagnated their offense when LeBron wasn’t on the floor. They still managed to stay within relative reach for most of the game and cut the lead to single digits multiple times in the second half. But every time they got close, Giannis and the Bucks responded.
Giannis already has an athletic advantage over the rest of the league, and the 3-point shot adds another wrinkle to his game. LeBron was a personal witness to that on Thursday night: With 10 minutes left in the fourth, and LeBron guarding Giannis near the 3-point line, Giannis made a faint move that looked like he was about to pull up from beyond the arc. The Greek Freak had already made four 3s at that point, and the threat of another made LeBron inch forward. That small shift allowed Giannis to ghost LeBron on his way to the rim and draw a foul—the only thing LeBron could do in response (besides literally tip his cap postgame). It was the game, and maybe the entire league, in a nutshell.
The Bucks proved on Thursday that they are the best team in the league—and they only seem to be getting better. This win wasn’t an exposure of the Lakers, who are now 6-5 against teams above .500. It was just the best player in the world playing like it in order to beat a team the Bucks might see in the Finals. Giannis starting to hit 3s with regularity isn’t him unlocking some sort of cheat code; it’s just another way of showing the rest of the league that he’s playing a different game altogether. His actual crowning may have to wait until the playoffs, but for now, who is going to stop him?