July 21, 2021
A little over 8 years ago, an 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo found himself in his first championship game entirely by coincidence. After he had emerged from relative obscurity to catch the attention of NBA scouts early in the 2012-13 season, signed a four-year deal with Spanish club Zaragoza that would never materialize, and had already risen into the first round of mock drafts, the Greek Freak took the floor for 21-4 Filathlitikos’s regular season finale against 20-5 Nea Kifisia. A2 did not use a playoff format in those days and that meant that the small club from suburban Athens was in position to stave off a veteran team from Kifisia at the top of the table, leapfrog 21-5 Trikalla who beat them twice in the regular season, and capture the true prize for clubs in the Greek 2nd Division: promotion to A1.
In a game that was lost in the curiosity of his meteoric rise from a player no one had heard of playing in anonymity to a lottery prospect in a league with no footprint outside of Greece, Antetokounmpo had his first finals experience in front of a crowd that unexpectedly replicated the raucous small-gym atmosphere of bracket play at the Nike Peach Jam with its rare mix of top-level NBA decision-makers and fans. Scoring 4 points on 1-6 shooting and pulling down 9 rebounds before fouling it in a wild contest that went into triple-overtime, he could not save from a 89-81 defeat that dropped them into a three-way tie for first place and cost them the tiebreaker that would have kept them in position to earn one of the two bids to A1.
Fast forward 3006 days and the skinny teenager who finished that season averaging just 9.5 points and 5 rebounds per game has climbed to the pinnacle of the sport scoring 35.2 points per game en route to his first Finals MVP award and NBA Championship.
Just a month after it looked like his season was over following what appeared to be a serious knee injury and 12 days after the Bucks fell behind 0-2 to the Suns, Antetokounmpo closed the next chapter of his growing legacy. With signature moments that will run on highlight reels long after his career is over, clutch plays that were key to the Bucks’ narrow wins, and gaudy production throughout, the 26-year old brought Milwaukee its second NBA Championship a half-century after its first.
It was Antetokounmpo’s dominance inside that propelled the Bucks’ 2021 postseason run. Whether he was pushing the ball aggressively in the open floor, forcing drives to make something out of nothing one-on-one, or operating off the ball, he was nearly unstoppable when he looked to attack the rim.
The Bucks adjustments in the Finals highlighted Antetokounmpo’s versatility as finisher. After scoring an efficient 12 points over 6 possessions per game off the ball in Games 1 and 2, the 5-time NBA All-Star averaged 19.5 points over 12.3 possessions per game the rest of the series as he was imposing even when he was operating away from the action.
His ability to leave his stamp on a game was particularly glaring in Milwaukee’s decisive Game 6 win as he generated 46 of his 50 points in the paint. From Giannis’ earliest championship disappointment in that bustling Greek gym, to going 0-2 down in the NBA Finals, it started to feel like Giannis’ career had all the hallmarks of a classic Greek tragedy. But as he and the Bucks pulled themselves back into the series, and with Giannis’ superhuman or some might say Freakish performance in the Game 6 clincher, it now looks far more like something worthy of basketball’s Mount Olympus.