We’ve seen many archetypal scorers in basketball. Three-point snipers. Midrange artists. Overpowering post players. But Giannis Antetokounmpo has invented an entirely new genre of scorer. He has paired Shaquille O’Neal’s interior presence with LeBron James’ downhill athleticism.
Sure, Antetokounmpo hasn’t developed a consistent isolation game. He’s a bad shooter. He just missed three straight free throws in crunch time of game five. But he can do one thing better than any of his predecessors: run straight to the basket.
I challenge any reader to name another basketball player who could finish from the middle of the key.Or after picking up their dribble beyond the free-throw line, with seven-footer Frank Kaminsky standing directly in front of them. Kaminsky may as well have been a traffic cone.
If I had any idea how to stop Antetokounmpo from scoring inside the paint, I wouldn’t be giving it away for free. Teams have tried everything. Building a wall. Weak-side help defense. Shoving him in midair. None of them have worked. This postseason, he is scoring on an astonishing 80.2% of attempts within three feet of the basket. To put that into perspective, the average league-wide percentage this postseason is 68.3%.
The league’s greats cannot hold a candle to Antetokounmpo’s effectiveness. James has never eclipsed the 80% mark in the playoffs. O’Neal did once with Miami and Boston on significantly lower volume.
Antetokounmpo’s main playoff nemesis has been “the wall.” When he has the ball on the perimeter, defenders will pack his driving lanes in order to keep him from getting to the paint. Instead of abandoning corner shooters, defenders help off of above-the-break shooters in order to eliminate easy shoots.
Against Toronto in 2019 and Miami in 2020, this wall blocked off any chance of a championship in Milwaukee. But this year, Antetokounmpo has found the answer: giving up the ball.
Outside of maybe Anthony Davis, Antetokounmpo is the best roll man in basketball. Next time you see him set a pick, pay close attention to the defense. There are almost always multiple defenders shadowing him because they can’t let him get to the rim. This can lead to wide open corner threes or easy looks for the ball handler. When he sets a screen for Khris Middleton, the defenders can’t afford to prioritize Middleton because they need to make sure Antetokounmpo can’t get downhill. Middleton can get an open shot almost every time.
Here, Deandre Ayton needs to follow Antetokounmpo and cannot help back to Middleton until it’s too late. If you keep watching Middleton’s highlight reel, you can see how much space Antetokounmpo created for him.
Antetokounmpo’s scoring has become so valuable that it affects plays where he doesn’t even touch the ball.
I like to think of myself as someone who knows a good amount about basketball. I watch an unhealthy amount and spend an even unhealthier amount of time on Discord and Twitter chats talking about it. On July 6th, I logged onto Twitter to declare “Suns in 5.” I’m very fortunate that sports betting is not legal in California, because I was ready to double down on this sentiment.
I thought Antetokounmpo was going to be the third best offensive player throughout the series in the half court. Chris Paul and Devin Booker can create their own shot off the bounce better than he’ll ever be able to. Sure, he had been able to dominate in the first three rounds, but a great defensive team such as Phoenix must have an answer. My respect for Monty Williams is so high that I have been banished from Knicks Twitter for claiming he deserved the NBA Coach of the Year award over Tom Thibodeau. Surely, he must have a master plan to stop Antetokounmpo.
Oh and also, Antetokounmpo’s leg bent backward a week before the finals started.
Despite watching him for years, I never thought Antetokounmpo could pull this off. I assumed he needed to add something brand new to his game.
But rather than force himself into being a different player, he simply improved what he was already legendary at. He learned how to use his downhill attacking skills as a roll man. He developed more touch around the rim to scoop in layups. Sure, he has the occasional midrange leg-kick Dirk Nowitzki impression. He can back down small guys in the post. But that’s not what makes him great.
He has managed to become a legendary scorer who can’t really create his own shot. He has invented a new scoring archetype: the seven-foot slasher. He has torn down the literal and figurative wall that used to hold him back. And if he can be legendary for one more game, he’ll have the hardware to show for it.
Casey Grae covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].