Finals MVP Giannis Drops 50, Bucks Win First NBA Title Since 1971 πŸ†

With Giannis leading the way, the Bucks got it done. They went down 0-2, then won four straight, and now the city of Milwaukee has its first NBA Championship since 1971, when they had the great Kareem Abdul-Jabar. 50 points for Giannis, 50 years for the city of Milwaukee. Fitting.

Giannis, predictably, takes home Finals MVP. No doubt about that one. 35ppg, 13rpg, 5apg on 62% field goal shooting for the series. Simply phenomenal.

Tonight: 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. Those are Wilt Chamberlain numbers. And he was 17-19 from the line! When it mattered most, he delivered. As far as I’m concerned when you go 17-19 from the free throw line in the close-out game of the Finals, nobody can ever say shit about your free throw shooting again. He hits them when it matters, and that’s all that matters.

We’ll talk more about Giannis shortly, though. A lot more. So I want to get to his teammates first.

Khris Middleton hit big shots down the stretch to put the game away. He averaged 24 in the series on 45% shooting. For a guy that at one point played in the freaking G-League to be in this position, hats off. He’s everything you want in a second star, and he fits perfectly with Giannis.

My low-key favorite thing about the ending of every NBA Finals is to just look at all the role players on the winning team and think about what a ring means to their careers. PJ Tucker now has a ring. I just love that. PJ Tucker, NBA Champion. Brook Lopez now has a ring. Bobby Portis: ring.

After Kostas won a ring with the Lakers last season, now all three Antetokounmpo brothers have rings: Giannis, Thanassis and Kostas.

I just love seeing the less-heralded players achieve basketball immortality. You just think of all the contributions these guys made along the way: PJ Tucker always having to guard the other team’s best scorer–from Jimmy Butler to Kevin Durant to now Devin Booker. He made them work for it.

And Brook Lopez, who stepped up massively when Giannis went down, going off for 33 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. And who could forget Bobby Portis, who came up with 16 huge points tonight on 6-9 shooting. There’s always one role player who rises to the occasion in the biggest moments, and Bobby Portis was out there working his ass off determined to make sure his team sealed the deal.

Jrue Holiday will now get the recognition he deserves for being one of the best defensive point guards in the league. He had 12 points and 11 assists tonight. Although his shooting has been criticized in this series, he ended up with a +/- of +159 for the whole playoffs, the highest of any player this postseason. He was the missing piece, truly. He took that team over the top. And now he’s a Champion.

Winning a ring completely transforms players’ careers and legacies.

Let’s take a second to reflect on just how many ups and downs there were in this Bucks’ postseason run:

  • They start off against the team that embarrassed them in the Bubble last year, the Miami Heat. No biggie: Milwaukee takes care of Miami in 5 and gets their revenge.
  • Then, they go up against the Nets in the second round and drop the first two games, at one point in Game 2 the Bucks were losing by 49 POINTS, and ultimately lost by 39.
  • But James Harden went down in Game 1 with a hamstring injury that would ultimately prove insurmountable for him. Then Kyrie goes down with an ankle injury in Game 3. The Bucks roar back into the series and tie it 2-2. However, KD then explodes for 49 in one of the greatest playoff performances ever, the Bucks go down 3-2 in the series, and everyone including me was ready to stick a fork in ’em.
  • The Bucks then rally to win the next game, force a Game 7 in Brooklyn, and again KD has an all-time great playoff performance, however his foot is one inch over the line on what would’ve been the likely game-winning three pointer, meaning the game goes to overtime and the Bucks win it.
  • Coach Mike Budenholzer is probably fired if KD’s foot is one inch further back on that shot. It sounds like ancient history now, but there was a lot of grumbling on NBA Twitter about how Bud can’t coach. “Fire Bud” was trending. I even said on this site that I didn’t think Bud could get it done.
  • In the Conference Finals against Atlanta, the Bucks are getting all they can handle, but then Trae Young goes down with an ankle injury. It now looks as if the Bucks are going to breeze into the Finals, but then Giannis’ knee BENDS BACKWARDS and he’s out. The immediate reports were that the Bucks were fearing he just completely destroyed his knee and would be out not only for the playoffs but for, like, the next 12 months.
  • The Bucks rally to win the series without Giannis, largely because Trae Young was out for the Hawks and when he came back for Game 6, he wasn’t anywhere close to 100%. So the Bucks are in the Finals, but at this point they didn’t have any idea when Giannis would come back, if at all.
  • Leading up to the Finals, the belief was that Giannis might be back later in the series, possibly Game 3 or Game 4, but then he surprises everyone and suits up for Game 1, just one week after his knee literally bent backwards. He looks good, but he clearly wasn’t 100%, and the Bucks lose
  • The Bucks then drop Game 2, and it looked like they just couldn’t keep up with the Suns’ high-flying offense. The Suns came into this series favored, and it looked like they’d probably take care of business in 5 games, maybe 6 at the most.

Obviously we all know how things went following Game 2.

Not only was this a wild postseason ride in 2021, it has been a crazy past year or so for the Bucks as a franchise. Remember, up until December 15, 2020–about a week before this season began–a lot of people believed this would be his last season in Milwaukee. People figured he’d take the LeBron/KD route and bail on the small market team that drafted him, and head for greener pastures. But he stayed: he signed a 5 year, $228 million supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee. In an era where superstars usually leave for New York, LA, Miami and the Bay Area, Giannis stayed.

The Bucks traded a boatload of first-round picks for Jrue Holiday in the offseason, believing he was the final piece they needed to become Championship contenders, but they did this before Giannis signed his extension. They didn’t know whether he would stay or leave, but they figured they’d go all-in on the 2021 season with the hope that if they did somehow win the Championship, it might convince Giannis to stay.

That was the feeling going into this season: that Giannis would decline the supermax extension, play the 2021 season and then become a free agent, and the only real hope the Bucks had of keeping him was winning the title this year.

But Giannis was never planning on leaving. He signed the supermax extension, marrying him to the city of Milwaukee for at least the next 5 years, and then he delivered the Championship.

It’s such a great story in this era where superstar players are often mercenaries, that this home-grown Milwaukee team could win it all by basically doing the opposite of what everybody else in the league is doing. Giannis is not like the other superstars; he’s humble and self-deprecating and even kinda goofy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously in interviews; in fact he’s one of the most honest and candid superstars out there. He’s not one of those guys who says a lot of words but doesn’t actually say anything, you know?

He wasn’t a highly-touted draft prospect–he was the 15th overall pick. He was never expected to be this good.

And Khris Middleton was an afterthought as well: he was drafted 39th overall, in the second round, by the Detroit Pistons, and only lasted on season there before being tossed in as part of the Brandon Jennings trade. The Pistons clearly didn’t see his value. It took a few years, but he became an All Star.

Giannis and Middleton have been underdogs their entire careers. They were not the guys who walked into the NBA as stars from day one; they had to grind and improve over the years.

The whole thing is just so improbable: Giannis and Middleton becoming stars; Giannis staying, Milwaukee winning a title. It’s just not what we’re used to. Even the whole Giannis-Milwaukee marriage is kinda hard to believe: you have this superstar player from Greece, and of all places in America, he falls in love with Milwaukee, Wisconsin? He could’ve gone anywhere he wanted–New York, LA, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, Boston, Texas–but he chose to stay in Milwaukee.

It’s heartwarming stuff, honestly. It’s almost too wholesome to believe in this day and age.

In retrospect, we should have known Giannis was never leaving Milwaukee. As Americans, it’s tough for us to understand what it’s like to come to this country at a young age–a different language, a different culture, a different everything. He didn’t even know where the city of Milwaukee was at first.

But Milwaukee welcomed him and embraced him as one of their own, and he became a hero there. The city of Milwaukee loves him, and he loves them back. I think we all underestimated how important Milwaukee was and is to him. He’s said it plenty of times in the past, we just didn’t believe him.

He’s not from here. But the city of Milwaukee became his home. He was never going to leave. It’s a lot easier when you’re from America to leave your hometown for another. Don’t get me wrong, moving cross-country is a big deal, but for these rich athletes, it’s not out of the ordinary to have two homes and fly back and forth from them whenever you want.

But Giannis’ original home is on the other side of the world. He settled in Milwaukee and put down roots there. He picked his entire family up from Greece and moved them to Milwaukee. Milwaukee is their home now. I don’t think we fully understood how strong a bond he had formed with that city over the past 8 years.

***

I want to now pivot to legacy. Giannis, at the age of 26, now has an NBA title, a Finals MVP, two regular-season MVPs, and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Is he now the best player in the league? I wouldn’t really fight you if you said he was.

Personally, I’m still going to wait and see what LeBron does this upcoming season, because LeBron is a guy you never count out.

To me, the real argument is whether Giannis is ahead of KD right now. I’m going to say no, because even though the Nets lost, KD was the best player in that second-round Nets-Bucks series, at least in my opinion. But Giannis is right there with him. KD averaged 34 and 9 rebounds on 57% eFG this postseason–those are ridiculous numbers. But Giannis averaged 29 and 13 rebounds on 58% eFG, so like I said: he’s right there.

KD obviously has a way deeper bag offensively than Giannis, but you could say that about KD compared to almost any other player in league history. Giannis, I believe, is more physically dominant, and definitely the most physically dominant player in the league today. But Giannis has a strong edge over KD defensively. KD has never been a bad defender, but he’s also never really been a stand-out defender. Giannis is a stand-out defender. He is a monster defensively.

There’s a very compelling case that Giannis has edged KD, but I don’t want to just brush aside a guy like KD who has been as good as he’s been for over a decade now. KD’s body of work and his track record don’t just become irrelevant after one post-season. Plus, if KD’s foot was one inch further back, we’re not even having this conversation. We wouldn’t even have Giannis in the top-5; we’d just be focusing on his three straight years of high profile playoff failures.

I know we always want to overreact in the aftermath of the Finals because we’re caught up in the moment, but I’m going to hold off on crowning Giannis for now.

Still, though: being the third best player in the league behind LeBron and KD is nothing to scoff at. Both of them are all-time greats. LeBron is either #1 or #2 all-time depending on who you ask, and while I personally have KD in my top-10 all-time, I think most people would agree he’s at least top-15.

So then that begs the question: where does Giannis rank all-time now? I know he’s only 26, turning 27 in December, but he’s earned the right to be in that conversation now. If you’re as decorated as he is, once you win that first ring and Finals MVP, you are in the discussion.

It’s really tough to place him among the all-time greats because that’s a whole debate unto itself; in order to figure out where Giannis now currently ranks, we have to actually figure out who the top 25-30 guys are.

The good news is that the top-20 all-time is basically set, and it’s a very exclusive club full of guys that have multiple rings and dominated the league for a long time. I think you need at least two rings to crack the top-20, although there are a few exceptions like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Barkley and Malone never got a ring, but Robertson and West have one apiece.

So now we look at guys in that 21-25 range and try to stack Giannis up with them: depending on whose list you’re looking at, it’s guys like KG, Dirk, D-Wade, Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Scottie Pippen, etc.

Maybe it would be easier to look at guys who play the same position as Giannis and see where ranks among all of them. I guess we’d classify Giannis as a power forward, although he can also play small forward and I guess even be a small-ball center if need be. It’s weird because on ESPN, they show both Giannis and PJ Tucker as Power Forwards. But Giannis is clearly not the point guard (that’s Jrue), and clearly not the center (that’s Lopez). Khris Middleton is listed as a small forward, but he’s more like the shooting guard in my view.

Let’s just say Giannis is a power forward; that’s what feels the most right.

If we go by ESPN’s list of the best power forwards ever, they have:

  1. Tim Duncan
  2. Karl Malone
  3. Dirk Nowitzki
  4. Charles Barkley
  5. Kevin Garnett
  6. Kevin McHale
  7. Bob Pettit
  8. Elvin Hayes
  9. Pau Gasol
  10. Dennis Rodman

In my view Giannis is already ahead of KG. KG won an MVP and a DPOTY, plus a ring, but he wasn’t Finals MVP and he didn’t really do well in the playoffs until he teamed up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston. They made the conference Finals in 2004, losing to the Lakers, but prior to that it was a lot of lopsided first-round exits. Plus, Giannis is a far greater scorer than KG ever was. KG’s best scoring season was his 2004 MVP year when he averaged 24 a game.

To be honest, the only guy on that list that I’m 100% sure Giannis isn’t ahead of is Tim Duncan. I think you could make an argument Giannis has surpassed Karl Malone, Dirk and Charles Barkley. But you could also argue he hasn’t as well. He has more rings than Malone and Barkley already. He’s a better defender than all those guys.

I think this means Giannis is solidly in the top-25 all-time, at worst top-30. I don’t know where exactly he ranks, or who we’d have to bump down to make room for him, but he belongs in the top-30 at least.

Giannis does things on the court that we have never seen before. That block on Ayton–how many guys in the history of the league would be capable of making that play? Not many.

He’s way more athletic than anybody on that top-10 power forwards list. In fact, that’s the main reason his position isn’t fully clear to us: he’s too athletic to be just a power forward. He’s as big as a center with small-forward skills.

This could be a whole article unto itself, but the bottom line is that his combination of size, athleticism and defensive ferocity make him a truly special player. He is simply a monster.

Hopefully now that he’s won a ring people will stop focusing on what he can’t do (outside shooting, free throws, handle the ball late in games) and focus on the things he can do.

And hopefully Giannis can get more respect for how genuinely good he is at basketball. I’m reminded of that James Harden quote a few years back where James said of Giannis, “I wish I could just run and be 7 feet and just dunk. Like, that takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball, and have skill. I’ll take that any day.”

I almost wonder if maybe that’s how the rest of the league feels about Giannis–like he’s only as good as he is because he’s been blessed to a ridiculous degree with unparalleled physical traits. I think a lot of NBA players are downright jealous of him.

But it’s a mistake to believe Giannis didn’t grind and work his ass off to become the player he is. This is what Giannis looked like in 2013 when the Bucks drafted him:

That’s how he was built when he was playing ball in Greece. All skin and bones. He was skinnier than Kevin Durant. Look at his left knee: it’s literally wider than his quad muscle. His thighs are the same size as his calves.

Now look at him:

Certainly he’s been blessed with loads of God-given raw talent. But give him credit for hitting the weight room and packing on the muscle.

And another thing: there are lots of 6′ 11″ guys in the NBA. None of them can do what Giannis does. If it was as easy as Harden says, then wouldn’t other guys be doing what Giannis does?

It feels like this is now Giannis’ league. He still has many more years of dominance ahead of him, and I’d expect at least another ring or two. By no means will it be easy for him to get back here again, but he is now a force to be reckoned with in this league.

Giannis is the exact type of player you want to build the foundation of your franchise on. In the NBA we get caught up in a lot of the “which player is better” talk, but at the end of the day, the league since the very beginning has been dominated by these extreme outlier athletes who are just bigger, stronger, faster and ultimately just better than everybody else.

George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, LeBron, KD and now Giannis. It’s these once-in-a-generation talents–the guys who can do things nobody else can–that tend to own the league. It’s their world, and everybody else is just living in it.

As good as the Suns were, the truth is, the Bucks had the best player in the series. We should put more stock into the Giannis Factor. It’s like no matter how many good things you could say about the Suns, at the end of the day, the one factor that mattered the most was the fact that Milwaukee had Giannis. When you have a once-in-a-generation guy like that, you generally win. A lot.

It’s just how the NBA has always been. As great a point guard as CP3 is and has been his whole career, it’s very rare to see a “small guy,” a point guard, be the best player on a Championship team. Steve Nash could never do it. Jason Kidd only won a ring when he was 37 and playing with Dirk.

Sure, there’s obviously Magic, but Magic was 6′ 9″. And he had Kareem.

Really, Isiah Thomas and Steph Curry are the only “small guys” to lead teams to Championships. And in the case of Isiah, he had an incredible team full of big, tough guys around him. For Curry, it’s doubtful the Warriors win that 2015 Championship without all those injuries the Cavs suffered.

Big usually beats small in the NBA. That’s what played out in the 2021 Finals.

***

Now for the part of the article that’s not fun to write: the Phoenix Suns.

As happy as I am for Giannis and the boys winning rings, I feel bad for Chris Paul.

When the Suns punched their ticket to the Finals, it felt like they were locks to win it all. This was when we all thought Giannis had completely obliterated his knee.

Even after Game 2, it felt like this was finally going to be Chris Paul’s moment. At long last, he would finally be the one hoisting the trophy, not his buddies LeBron and D-Wade.

But it wasn’t to be. In the days to come, we’ll learn more about the rumored hand injury he’s apparently been dealing with in this series. I don’t think you can blame that, though.

It was sad seeing CP3 walk off the court after the final horn sounded. It seemed like this was going to be his moment–the moment he’d been waiting so long for. From the controversial failed trade to the Lakers in 2011, to all the playoff disappointments including the 2018 Conference Finals against the Warriors when he hurt his hamstring while up 3-2, it just sucks to see a guy who’s been so great for so long come up short like this.

I feel for Devin Booker, too. Now of course, it was his first-ever playoffs, and it’s rare for guys to even make the Finals the first time they get to the playoffs, so I don’t feel too bad for him, but it still sucks to lose no matter what.

And I’m sure he’s going to look back on this Finals with some regrets. Imagine if Booker didn’t get ripped by Jrue Holiday at the end of Game 5; imagine if he pulls up, hits that shot, gives Phoenix the lead and they hold on to win the game and go up 3-2. I still think the Bucks would’ve won Game 6, but that could’ve changed this whole series.

It’s unfortunate that The Rip is what Devin Booker will be remembered for in this series, because he was mostly great. Back-to-back 40-pieces? Not many guys in NBA history have done that in the Finals. In fact, the list is as follows: MJ, LeBron, Shaq, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Giannis and Devin Booker. That’s it.

Granted, there’s a lot more scoring in today’s NBA than in the past, but still. Devin Booker is a special talent, and at the age of just 24, he’s got a lot of great basketball ahead of him. He will be one of the faces of the NBA over the next 10 years.

Still, though, it’s crazy to think that Booker is only 2 years younger than Giannis. Everyone talks about Booker as this emerging young player while Giannis is the fully-arrived superstar–they’re not that far apart in age. But then again, at the start of Giannis’ age 24 season, he hadn’t really made a name for himself in this league. The next two years could be something special for Devin Booker.

I also want to give some respect to Monty Williams. I’ve never seen the coach of a losing team come into the winning team’s locker room and congratulate them all like Monty did tonight. That was an incredibly classy move and it just shows you the man’s character. Hats off to one of the great guys and great coaches in sports.

The biggest question for the Phoenix Suns is, what will CP3 do now? When the Suns were up 2-0 in the series, it felt ridiculous to entertain the idea of him leaving.

But now it seems like maybe he might not be a Sun next season.

I think he and the Suns front office know, deep down, that this was their best chance to win it. With all the injuries to the other stars in the league, the Suns had a golden opportunity to get that first Championship. Are they going to really want to run it back next season when LeBron and AD will be healthy, when the Nets will be healthy, when Klay Thompson will be healthy, when Kawhi will be healthy–well, Kawhi is a big question mark with the ACL surgery, but the point still remains.

And the Bucks aren’t going anywhere, either.

When you lose in the playoffs, even if it’s the Finals, and it’s not at the last second of a Game 7, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to just run it back. The Suns are not good enough to win an NBA Championship as currently constructed. It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless. Sure, they went up 2-0 in the series, but they then lost four straight games. They aren’t good enough.

They’re not going to blow it up, of course. But I don’t think they’re going to just say, “Run it back.”

Chris Paul is expected to opt out of the last year of his contract in favor of something like a 3yr/$100 million deal. He wants to lock in money over a longer term, and give whatever team he signs with more flexibility with the cap instead of paying him $44 million next year.

There’s a lot of chatter that he might end up teaming up with his old buddy LeBron in LA. The Lakers don’t have a lot of cap space to work with, and there are questions about whether LeBron and CP3 would actually work well together, but the possibility of Paul joining AD was the first thing on Magic Johnson’s mind after the game ended:

I mean, if Dennis Schroder is asking for $100 million, and so is Chris Paul, it seems like a no-brainer to me who the Lakers should offer the contract to, no?

I think at this point in his career, having gotten so close to the peak of the mountaintop he could almost taste it, Chris Paul is going to do whatever it takes to win a Championship. And where’s he more likely to do that: in Phoenix, or in LA with LeBron and Anthony Davis? We all know the answer.

People say, “Well Chris Paul is the Player’s Association President, it’s a bad look for him to take less money and ring chase.” So he could step down as Player’s Association President. He’s done it for 8 years now. That’s a long time–it’s as long as we allow our Nation’s Presidents to hold office. Step down and hand the reigns over to somebody like Steph Curry, or Malcolm Brogdon (currently one of the Vice Presidents of the Player’s Association) if that’s what it takes.

Chris Paul is 36. He knows he doesn’t have many years left in the NBA. Does he want to be remembered for being a Championship point guard, or for being the President of the Player’s Association? Easy answer.

I’m not saying he has to join the Lakers, but it’s the move that would make the most sense because of his relationship with LeBron.

***

Octavian

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