MILWAUKEE — Mere minutes after the NBA announced its three MVP finalists Friday, Giannis Antetokounmpo made it clear he is the deserving winner.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ sensational forward wasted no time setting the tone for a 125-103 blowout of the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, dunking the ball through two defenders on his first offensive possession and then swatting Marc Gasol’s shot on his first defensive possession. As Milwaukee raced out to a 9-0 lead, Antetokounmpo dunked again and found Nikola Mirotic for a three-pointer. Toronto couldn’t match Antetokounmpo’s energy and force, falling behind by 18 points in the first quarter and trailing by 25 points at halftime as Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.
“The block is what stands out,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “When Giannis is active protecting the paint and rim, he plays so hard. He lays it all on the line all the time. It was a great start for us. Everybody fed off of Giannis. I’m beyond fortunate to have him.”
Antetokounmpo’s individual play makes him a worthy finalist alongside Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George. But it’s his ego-less leadership and impact on the Bucks’ offense, defense and culture that sets him apart this year.
As with Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry before him, Antetokounmpo has a personality and approach that are quieter than his overwhelming highlights. He might scream after a dunk, but he never fails to get back on defense. He might relentlessly drive to the hoop with his signature long strides, but he always has an understanding of where his shooters are located. He might be impossible to handle in single coverage, but he is a willing and intelligent passer who regularly defers credit to his teammates in news conferences.
Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and five assists Friday, and his early attacks put the Bucks in a commanding position and put the Raptors’ defense back on its heels. Toronto Coach Nick Nurse agonized during his pregame news conference about Milwaukee’s perimeter attack, and his concerns proved founded.
“Our help [on Antetokounmpo] has got to be great, and then when [the ball] fires out to your man, you’ve got to go,” Nurse said. “I think our level of shot-contesting is another real key in this thing. The 40 threes are going up tonight. That little eight inches closer that you can get — and jump a little higher and contest it a little harder — makes a difference.”
Sure enough, the Bucks were able to find cracks in the Raptors’ defensive rotations after Antetokounmpo’s early pummeling. Mirotic, Khris Middleton and Ersan Ilyasova hit two threes each, and reserve guard Malcolm Brogdon added three more. Milwaukee’s bench outscored Toronto’s 54-39, with six Bucks finishing in double figures.
“It’s so nice seeing guys come into the game being mentally prepared and playing hard,” Antetokounmpo said of Milwaukee’s bench. “This team, on any given night, guys can step up. This is the beauty of basketball and the beauty of our team: We trust each other.”
Elsewhere in the NBA, even on very good teams, role players regularly find themselves standing and watching as the star goes to work. Not in Milwaukee, where the ball moves and all five players are expected to pull the trigger. Antetokounmpo is smart and unselfish enough to realize that less can be more: If he trusts his teammates, their shooting will create more room for him to drive to the rim.
This fluid interplay between Antetokounmpo and his deep cast has produced a league-best 60 wins and consistently beautiful basketball all year, and it has the Bucks utterly dominating these playoffs. After Game 2, Milwaukee improved to 10-1 in the postseason with an average margin of victory of 15.3 points. That level of success deserves comparison to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs and the 2015 Golden State Warriors, two recent juggernauts who won titles with wholes that were far greater than the sum of their parts.
The Bucks might lack big names around their centerpiece, but they are deadly serious and playing basketball on a level that has been matched only by the Warriors this season. As with the defending champs, who came back to beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night to take a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals, the Bucks understood that they have the potential to be their own worst enemy.
“Human nature is a strong force,” Budenholzer said when asked about possible complacency following their come-from-behind win in Game 1. “I think every coach for a long time in every sport has been trying to fight it. We’re hard on ourselves. We look at ourselves, try to be honest and teach from positive, teach from areas where we can improve. When the players embrace just getting better from day to day, I think that’s been helpful for us.”
Antetokounmpo made sure there would be no letdown, leaving Nurse and the Raptors with plenty to ponder. Gasol, who had his minutes cut in Game 2 for matchup purposes, was dreadful, scoring just two points in 19 minutes. Kyle Lowry’s shooting regressed after a hot Game 1, forcing Kawhi Leonard, who scored a game-high 31 points, back to life as a one-man attack. Pascal Siakam hasn’t been able to slow down Antetokounmpo, and Toronto still hasn’t faced a team-wide breakthrough from Milwaukee’s many shooters.
When Antetokounmpo slices through the paint, as he did past Siakam in the first half for a thunderous right-handed dunk, he evokes comparisons to cartoon characters and superheroes. Yet there’s nothing trivial or imagined about the collective force that Antetokounmpo inspires around him.
“This series is not going to be about me,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s going to be about my teammates. As the leader of the team, I have to deliver the ball to the right guy at the right moment.”
Antetokounmpo’s MVP case is as simple as this: He could win plenty on his own terms, but the Bucks have won more than anyone else because he has opted for a more egalitarian — and far deadlier — approach.