Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals was not a must-win for the Bucks, but one could still sense the team’s urgency. If they lost, they would be forced to play a Game 7 on the road, and while momentum was on their side, there’s no use tempting fate in a series where every game is so consequential. Of course, the Bucks did win that game, earning their first championship in 50 seasons. And while it may be hackneyed to say that Giannis Antetokounmpo would not let Milwaukee lose that night, performances like the one he put up Tuesday night in Game 6 are the reason cliches like that exist. It was the culmination of his growth as a player, with Giannis playing basketball and leading his team to a championship in a way that no one else could have.
When you watch Giannis play, perhaps the first thing you notice will be his stride. Even accounting for his large frame, Antetokounmpo has outrageously long limbs and each step he takes covers an even more disproportionate amount of space. He can cover the whole court in just a few steps, making every fast break look like a series of travels; fans aren’t used to seeing 94 feet traversed like that. In the halfcourt, he uses that same gait to disarm defenders completely unprepared to face a player who uses his body and the space provided by its length in such ways. Every drive to the hoop, each Eurostep, each spin move in the restricted area takes a standard form and reinvents it. You’ve seen these plays before, yes, but not like this. While they remain recognizable, old moves are made anew through the virtue of his inventiveness and unique style of play.
When Antetokounmpo entered the league, it was as a bundle of unformed potential, a mystery man that any number of desires or abilities could be projected onto. As the 15th selection in the 2013 Draft, he was a low-risk roll of the dice by a team who spotted something in him even if it would have been hard for anyone to say exactly what they foresaw. He appeared to be one of many players drafted more for their potential than their current abilities. It’s a strategy that rarely works out, but the imagined rewards make front offices see it as a worthwhile gamble year after year. You can teach a jump shot, but you can’t teach someone to have a 7’3” wingspan and 40 inch vertical leap, the thinking goes.
It is impossible to overstate the amount Antetokounmpo has grown since that rookie season. There were tantalizing glimpses of what could be, though it felt foolish to make too much of them. Yet in spite of that growth, confirmed by All-NBA nods and MVPs, there still remained notable holes in his game. His shooting form has gotten uglier as his career has progressed and his free-throw shooting has become less reliable. In previous generations, few would fret too much about this. However, in a league built around three-point shooting and obsessed with efficiency and optimization, these concerns have continued to loom in the background. Not even two MVPs and two years in a row leading the Bucks to the best record in the league could quiet these concerns. All that mattered in the eyes of critics was that Milwaukee had lost in the postseason, that Giannis just did not appear to have what it took to win it all. He was far too lethal to be called limited, but the consensus seemed to be that, in the fires of the postseason, these flaws mattered more than the skills he did have.
A major component of what makes Antetokounmpo so thrilling is that for all his ability and success, he often appears unrefined. This is not a claim that he lacks basketball skills, though the traditional methods of dominance are not employed by him -- they’re simply not necessary in light of his other, rarer gifts. What was necessary for Giannis to fully assert himself and win an NBA championship was not for him to augment his skillset with a more reliable three-point shot or to adopt a new style that was more in line with conventional forms of play. Instead, he became more assertive, realizing that the title was his to claim; he just had to put his head down and get to the rim. He may not be the best or most well-rounded player in the NBA, but he is often the most dominant, and why demand a player to align with ideals when one has that?
Antetokounmpo shows here the virtue of staying true to one’s own talents. At the same time, the weaknesses in his game were not eliminated, but made irrelevant thanks to how persistently he was able to highlight his own strengths. He did not triumph by following any standard idea of what a modern star must be, but by forging his own path. It is one unique to him, blending retro ideas of post dominance with conceptions of space and movement that could be revolutionary if only there was anyone else able to follow in his footsteps.
Progress is not often linear, yet one often finds themselves wishing it were. Real life, with its infinite variables, and actual persons, with their unique combination of motivations, desires, and weaknesses, keep any attempt at systematized analysis inherently provisional. Progress, growth, decay -- they are all more haphazard processes, characterized by general trends and scattered points more than straight lines. Giannis did not develop in the way anyone could have predicted or expected. Few would have imagined he would have been an MVP or a Finals MVP; many would have rejected the idea that he could win a title without making wholesale adjustments to his game. And yet by committing more fully to what makes him the player he is, he achieved his greatest victory yet.