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Giannis Is Becoming the New King in the East

After years of being tortured by LeBron James, the Raptors will now face off against the Bucks superstar just as he’s emerging as an equally dominant force in the conference

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been almost too dominant in the playoffs to get noticed. While Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard had otherworldly performances in more dramatic series, Giannis eliminated his first two opponents too quickly for people to fully appreciate what he has been doing. He is playing like a young LeBron James, while Milwaukee has become a better version of the Cleveland teams that went to the past four NBA Finals. It’s not just that the Bucks have the best player in the Eastern Conference. They have an ideal supporting cast that allows him to be the best version of himself. The Raptors, the last team standing between the Bucks and the NBA Finals, will have to play nearly perfect basketball to beat them.

Giannis has always been one of the most gifted players in the league. At 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he combines the speed and ballhandling ability of a guard with the size and length of a center. Now, at 24 and in his sixth season in the NBA, he is fully in control of his powers. There is not much that anyone can do to stop him when he puts his head down and goes to the rim. Giannis had the best interior scoring numbers since Shaquille O’Neal in the regular season, and he has kept it up in the playoffs. He shot 64.5 percent from 2-point range and averaged 13.8 free throw attempts over the last four games of the Celtics series. The difference between him and Shaq is that he doesn’t need a guard to get him the ball in the post. He can bring it up the court himself and then attack the defense from any point on the floor.

All the Bucks have to do is play Giannis in as much space as possible. After the Celtics slowed him down in a 112-90 loss in Game 1 of their second-round series, Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer began reducing the playing time of Brook Lopez, the team’s gargantuan starting center. Giannis had a net rating of minus-3.3 in 81 minutes with Lopez in the series and a net rating of plus-25.9 in 88 minutes without him. It was a virtuous cycle: The Bucks could play a more aggressive style of pick-and-roll defense with Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic in place of Lopez, and getting more stops allowed Giannis to pick apart the Celtics in the open court. His numbers over the last four games of the series were superhuman: 30.0 points on 58.8 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks.

Those lineups also made it easier for Giannis to choose whom he wanted to attack. He could initiate the offense from the top of the key and then put the worst defender on the floor in the pick-and-roll. Giannis is the rare 7-footer who puts more pressure on the defense when he’s the ball handler in the two-man game instead of the screener. Using him in the latter role just makes it easier for the defense to keep the ball out of his hands and force one of his teammates to make decisions, while using him in the former allows him to hunt mismatches against poor defenders like Kyrie Irving. Giannis was in the 97th percentile of scorers leaguewide on those plays in the regular season, and he’s in the 98th percentile in the playoffs.

Giannis is more than just a scorer, though. Being the next LeBron also means knowing how to leverage the ability to make his teammates better. He’s a better passer than either Kawhi or Durant, elite scorers who learned how to pass as they got older. Antetokounmpo was a point forward overseas who became a dominant scorer in the NBA, and as a result, he can control a game without taking a lot of shots. While he’s averaging only 4.4 assists on 2.8 turnovers per game in the playoffs, he had eight assists in games 3 and 5 against the Celtics. He’s an intelligent player with the basketball IQ to anticipate what the defense will do before he makes his move and the height to make every pass on the floor with ease.

The Bucks have fully optimized their offense around Giannis in the same way the Cavs used to with LeBron. The changes under Budenholzer go beyond shooting more 3-pointers than any team except the Rockets. The Bucks get shooting from every other spot in their rotation: Lopez, Mirotic, and Ilyasova up front; Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, and Sterling Brown on the wings; and Eric Bledsoe and George Hill at point guard. The defense can never leave anyone open. Giannis can either get a shot against one defender at the rim, or someone else will get an open shot at the 3-point line. He’s smart enough to alternate between looking to score and pass based on what the defense is doing, and it’s hard for even the most potent offense to keep up with such a hyperefficient distribution of shots.

Milwaukee has re-created the formula that Cleveland used over the four seasons before 2018-19. The team even has its own version of Kyrie in Middleton. Middleton is not as dynamic off the dribble as Kyrie, but he’s an elite 3-point shooter who can space the floor for Giannis and create a shot for himself or one of his teammates at the end of the shot clock. He can slide between playing off of Giannis and running the offense in his place over the course of the game, and he’s played that role well this postseason, averaging 19.1 points on 42.2 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game. At 6-foot-8 and 222 pounds, Middleton can use his size to score over the top of most defenders, and his ability to slide among multiple positions on defense gives the Bucks a lot of lineup flexibility.

Where the Bucks separate themselves from the Cavs is on the other end of the floor. They had the no. 1 defense in the NBA this season; Cleveland was never ranked higher than no. 10 in LeBron’s second stint with the franchise. Kyrie and Kevin Love were liabilities, while LeBron gave inconsistent effort, at best, in the regular season. Milwaukee doesn’t have many weak spots to attack. Lopez is its worst perimeter defender, and Budenholzer showed he would minimize him in a playoff series against a team that could spread the floor and attack him in space. The Bucks’ small-ball lineups with Giannis at the 5 were nearly impossible for the Celtics to crack. They could switch screens across all five positions, and Giannis could cover up any opening by bounding across the floor in two steps.

Any team that wants to score against Milwaukee has to keep Giannis occupied when he’s playing defense off the ball. He can defend almost any player in the NBA, but he’s at his best as a help-side defender who roams off of poor 3-point shooters. The Bucks were better on defense against the Celtics when Giannis was helping off Marcus Morris and clogging up the lane instead of being the primary defender on Al Horford in the pick-and-roll. Giannis is even longer than LeBron, which makes it easier for him to protect the rim and clean the defensive glass. It isn’t easy for opponents to force him out of that role, either. Milwaukee has so many good perimeter defenders (Bledsoe, Hill, Brogdon, and Middleton) that it rarely needs Giannis to guard one of the primary options on the opposing team.

The Bucks can play their own version of the Lineup of Death now that everyone is healthy: Giannis and Middleton up front, with Brogdon, Hill, and Bledsoe spread out along the perimeter. Brogdon came back in Game 5 against the Celtics after missing the previous six weeks with plantar fasciitis, giving them another big perimeter defender (6-foot-5 and 230 pounds) who can knock down 3s (42.6 percent on 3.8 attempts per game) and make good decisions (3.2 assists and 1.4 turnovers). Hill is a steady veteran who gives the Bucks the insurance behind Bledsoe they didn’t have last season. They have even found the perfect role for Bledsoe on offense by inverting the pick-and-roll and using him as the screener for Giannis. He can make the correct reads when Giannis is doubled and he’s in a four-on-three situation, essentially turning the dynamic between Steph Curry and Draymond Green on its head.

The Raptors will have no margin for error in the Eastern Conference finals, which start with Game 1 on Wednesday. The Bucks can spread out Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and force them to defend in space in ways the 76ers couldn’t and use Giannis to target smaller defenders like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the pick-and-roll. And there’s no way to help on any of those mismatches without leaving someone open from 3. The best chance for Toronto is to outscore Milwaukee, which means all its players have to be clicking. The Raptors will need big series from Lowry and Pascal Siakam, both of whom struggled to complement Kawhi against Philadelphia, as well as enough 3-point shooting from their frontcourt to keep Giannis honest on defense. There’s a lot that has to go their way, especially if O.G. Anunoby (appendectomy) remains out.

The Bucks are a tough matchup for anyone but the Warriors, and they have the pieces be far more competitive in the Finals against them than the Cavs. Milwaukee has separated itself from the other elite teams in the East over the first two rounds, while possibly clearing the board of potential challengers for years to come. The Bucks beat Boston so badly in the second round that they might have pushed Kyrie out the door, and they could do the same thing with Kawhi in Toronto. Those two teams knocked the Bucks out of the playoffs in the first round the past two seasons. If Milwaukee can get past Toronto, it might not lose to another Eastern team for a long time. LeBron went to eight straight NBA Finals before leaving his throne and heading west. Giannis might be about to start a run of his own.