Fresh off a dominating performance in a must-win Game 6, Giannis Antetokounmpo saw beyond the triumph of keeping the Milwaukee Bucks alive in the postseason. Moments after posting 31 points and 14 rebounds, the 23-year-old saw the forest through the trees -- there’s maturing to be done.
"It's big for our growth, growing as a team,” he said after the Bucks beat the Boston Celtics on Thursday night. “We were in the same position last year [against the Toronto Raptors], wasn't able to win Game 6. We have a big opportunity ahead of us. Hopefully we can go to Boston and get ready for Game 7.”
In each of his first two playoffs appearances, the Bucks were eliminated in six games. Not surprisingly, Giannis has seen his production increase has he gets more postseason experience.
2015: 11.5 points, 7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 blocks on 36.6% shooting in 33.5 MPG.
2017: 24.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.7 blocks on 53.6% shooting in 40.5 MPG.
2018: 26.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 0.8 blocks on 59.6% shooting in 39.8 MPG.
In the immediate wake of Saturday night’s Game 7 loss in Boston, the Bucks will be focused on building around Antetokounmpo this offseason, but individually the game might have more impact going forward than you might think.
It’s admittedly hard to find a good comparison for Giannis, but a number of transcendent players have faced a seventh game early in their development, learned from it and used it as a building block almost immediately.
- LeBron James experienced his first taste of a Game 7 in his first playoff run, which came in his third professional season. LeBron had 27 points and eight rebounds in a blowout loss, but just one year later he willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.
- Kevin Durant’s first seventh game came in his second postseason. The Oklahoma City Thunder won that game on the strength of his 39 points and nine boards. They went on to lose in the Western Conference Finals, but the next year they went all the way to the Finals.
- After the San Antonio Spurs fell to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Finals, Kawhi Leonard became featured more on offense and rose to become Finals MVP.
- Steph Curry had 33 points and nine assists in his first Game 7, a loss, but one year later he and the Golden State Warriors exploded and won the whole thing.
- In the midst of his first playoff run with the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade helped the team win the first deciding game he played in. The next year, they went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Antetokounmpo’s Game 7 in Boston got started slowly. He was just 2-for-7 in the first half after spending a good part of the second quarter on the bench with three fouls. He asserted himself early in the fourth, but picked up his fifth foul with more than eight minutes left.
“Foul trouble took him out; he didn’t close out the [first] half,” Joe Prunty said. “Their defense loaded up to him quite a few times and it’s a decision of, can he play at the rim, can he make the kick out? I still think he was aggressive trying to make the right plays.”
He finished 7-for-17 from the field with 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists. He was perfect from the line, where he’s just a 74.6% shooter for his career. Giannis was far-and-away the best player on the court throughout the series against the Celtics, but he didn’t dominate enough to push the Bucks deeper in the playoffs. He did, however, gain the type of valuable experience that helped guys like LeBron, KD, Steph and others take steps forward in subsequent playoff runs.
“All of these experiences – and he even eluded to it after Game 6 – what a big experience that was for us to win that game to force the Game 7,” Prunty said. “We’d been in that position, before, but now we’ve been in Game 7. You can go up-and-down the list of guys now that have been in it. I think every experience in a playoff series, all of it, is invaluable and a tremendous learning experience. Giannis’ ceiling, as we know, is tremendous and he’s getting better every day. I think that’s a scaring thing for everybody in the league.”
As scary as his evolving game is, there are things he’ll take from what happened on Saturday night that will better prepare him for Milwaukee’s next playoff run.
“Giannis is a ballhandler, he’s a pick-and-roll player, he’s a screen-setter, offensive rebounder, pushes it in transition,” Prunty added. “These are all valuable experiences, but he still has room to grow.”