This was one for the old school preachers and practitioners, for those who had begun to believe that basketball’s modern obsession with 3-point shootouts and drive-and-kick artistry had rendered the need for a dominant big man obsolete.
After all, for the first century of the sport, Big Men dominated the conversation, and all it took was a single name to demonstrate their authority
: Mikan and Russell. Wilt and Kareem. Shaq and Hakeem. Patrick. Moses. Walton.
Now it’s time for Giannis.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performance on Sunday night cannot be overstated. He was instrumental in saving the Milwaukee Bucks’ season. After the first 96 minutes, he saved the NBA Finals from becoming the one-sided bore they threatened to become. Mostly, he respected every ounce of his ability, talent, and power.
“He’s just doing whatever it takes to help us, he’s of an aggressive mindset but he passed well, did a little bit of everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said after watching his star put up 41 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists in leading Milwaukee to a 120-100 victory over the Suns in Game 3 of the Finals, allowing the Bucks to keep their season alive at home and resume their dreams of a championship.
“We need a lot from him,” Budenholzer said, “and he delivered.”
The one truth about Big Men that has endured through the generations is that they are the only ones capable of delivering the most basic premise of critical, essential basketball games: they can refuse to let their teams lose when they choose to. It’s the result of being a larger-than-life character in a game with larger-than-life characters.
Being a dominant player is one thing; even Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Larry Bird had games where they couldn’t buy a basket. It’s one thing to be a dominant force, but it’s quite another to be a dominant force. That has always been the dividing line between the elite centers and the rest in a game that used to be played from the inside out. A player, even a great one, can be contained.
A force is something else.
Antetokounmpo was a force to be reckoned with. He was everywhere on Sunday, from start to finish, insisting on his teammates getting involved (four of his assists came in the first quarter), and he finished drives, cleared the glass, occupied space in the middle, and even made his foul shots (13-for-17).
It meant back-to-back 40-point outbursts for Antetokounmpo, and when it was pointed out that Michael Jordan did it four times in a row against the Suns in 1993…
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” he said sheepishly. “I’m not Michael Jordan. All I care about right now is one more game. One more win.”
Milwaukee was even more desperate than the Bucks. The Fiserv Forum was a hive of activity from the start, and the crowds outside were equally enthralled. Of course, no city appreciates the Big Man’s eternal value more than New York. In the two years after Kareem arrived, the Bucks went from 27 wins to 66 wins and a championship. Once Bob Lanier was installed in the middle, they were perennial stones in the shoes of the Celtics and Sixers in the 1980s.