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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Antekounmpo Dominates as Bucks Capture Their First NBA Title Since 1971

Giannis Antetokounmpo refused to let his Milwaukee Bucks lose, imposing his skill and will at both ends of the court en route to scoring a game-high 50 points, grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, and blocking a game-high five shots as the Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 to capture the franchise's second NBA championship. Antetokounmpo shot 16-25 from the field and 17-19 from the free throw line in one of the most complete and dominant Finals performances ever. Antetokounmpo is just the seventh player to score at least 50 points in an NBA Finals game, joining Elgin Baylor (61), Rick Barry (55), Michael Jordan (55), Jerry West (53), LeBron James (51), and Bob Pettit (50). Anteokoumpo tied Pettit for the most points scored in a Finals-clinching victory, and he became just the sixth player to have at least three 40 point games in one NBA Finals. Antetokounmpo is the first player to have at least 50 points, at least 10 rebounds, and at least five blocked shots in a playoff game since the NBA made the blocked shot an official statistic in 1973-74

Antetokounmpo was an easy choice for Finals MVP, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon on the short list of players who have won a regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award (the Finals MVP was first awarded in 1969, and the Defensive Player of the Year award was first bestowed in 1983). There was some foolish talk before this game about whether Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton should receive the Finals MVP if the Bucks clinched the title in game six--but anyone who watches basketball with understanding realized, even before Antetokounmpo's historic game six performance, that Antetokounmpo is by far the best player on either team. Middleton is an outstanding--and often underrated--player, but he does not have the same impact in any area of the game that Antetokounmpo does. Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 ppg, 13.2 rpg, and 5.0 apg in the Finals while shooting .618 from the field, the first player in Finals history to post all of those numbers in the same series. His 35.2 ppg is the third highest scoring average posted by a player in his NBA Finals debut; Rick Barry and Allen Iverson scored more in their Finals' debuts, but both played for the losing team.

Middleton capped off a nice series with a solid performance, posting 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists while shooting 6-13 from the field. Jrue Holiday again struggled with his shot (4-19 field goal shooting), but he played great defense and he finished with 12 points, a game-high 11 assists, and nine rebounds (more than anyone except for Antetokounmpo and Phoenix forward Jae Crowder, who had 13). Bobby Portis came up big with 16 points on 6-10 field goal shooting in 23 minutes off of the bench. 

Chris Paul led the Suns with 26 points on 11-19 field goal shooting and he tied Devin Booker for team-high honors with five assists. Booker scored 19 points but shot just 8-22 from the field. Crowder scored 15 points on 4-11 field goal shooting, while Deandre Ayton had just 12 points on 4-12 field goal shooting, plus six rebounds. A major key for the Bucks was to limit Ayton's effectiveness in the paint without having to tilt their defense in a way that opened up opportunities for Booker and Paul. Ayton posted field goal percentages of .796, .610, and .693 in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but the Bucks held him to .531--a very good number, but obviously a big decline from the three series that the Suns won.

The Bucks built a 13 point first quarter lead, but the Suns came all the way back to go ahead by seven in the second quarter. The Suns led 47-42 at halftime, and it may have seemed like the game and the series were up for grabs--but the reality is that Antetokounmpo was poised to take over, and do whatever was necessary for the Bucks to prevail. He has had well-documented struggles at the free throw line, but that did not deter him from relentlessly attacking the hoop and drawing fouls. This is very valuable even when he misses his free throws, because the fouls put the opposing team in foul trouble and put the Bucks in the bonus, which creates free throw opportunities for their players who are good free throw shooters. In game six, though, Antetokounmpo shot 17-19 from the free throw line. Inconsistent or poor free throw shooters often claim to "make them when they count," but in this game Antekounmpo really did that.

The Bucks were up 58-55 after Antetokounmpo made a pair of free throws and then added a putback off of his own miss. At that point, he had shot 7-11 from the field since the start of the second quarter, while the rest of the Bucks shot 2-19 from the field during that span. The best player on a championship team has the obligation and responsibility to score prolifically, particularly in physical playoff games when points are hard to obtain. It is not enough to "make the right play" and pass to teammates who may not have the necessary skill or will to score in certain situations. Kobe Bryant won five championships because he understood and embraced this mentality from day one; LeBron James did not win his first title until he understood and embraced this mentality, after enduring Finals losses during which he was outplayed by smaller, less-skilled players such as Tony Parker and Jason Terry.

While his teammates struggled, Antetokounmpo scored 20 third quarter points on 6-11 field goal shooting, and the score was tied 77-77 heading into the fourth quarter. This was Antetokounmpo's second 20 point quarter in the 2021 NBA Finals after no player had even one such quarter since Michael Jordan did it in 1993. Antetokounmpo is the only player in the past 50 years to have two 20 point quarters in the same NBA Finals.

Antekounmpo added 13 fourth quarter points as the Bucks outscored the Suns 28-21 in the final stanza. Throughout the game it seemed like he was in multiple places at once, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and then attacking the hoop with force. By the end of the game, any Sun attempting a shot anywhere near Antetokounmpo was noticeably hesitant, if not blatantly intimidated; Ayton shied away from attempting a dunk and instead threw up a soft fadeaway when challenged by Antetokounmpo. Any time Antetokounmpo was switched onto Paul the matchup looked like the big brother not letting the little brother even get off a good shot. Size matters in the NBA, so even if Paul's skills were as good as Antetokounmpo's he still would not be nearly as good of a player as Antetokounmpo because Antetokounmpo is seven feet tall while Paul is barely six feet tall. This clinching game and this series provided a vivid demonstration of what I have been saying for years about players like Steve Nash and Chris Paul: they cannot possibly be as good or as dominant--particularly when it counts the most--as bigger players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kawhi Leonard, or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If you still stubbornly doubt this despite the mountains of evidence regarding the importance of size, just go back and look at game six again. Watch Paul often struggle to even get a shot off over Antetokounmpo on offense, and then have no choice at the other end of the court but to foul Antetokounmpo to prevent him from dunking. Anyone who compares Paul to Isiah Thomas just needs to stop. Thomas was the best player on two championship teams, and Thomas had a winning aggregate record against Larry Bird's Celtics, Magic Johnson's Lakers, and Michael Jordan's Bulls. That was incredible at the time, and it looks even more incredible three decades later. Paul's playoff resume does not hold a candle to Thomas' playoff resume. Paul has made it to the Finals once in 16 seasons, and during this playoff run the Suns benefited from an injury to at least one All-NBA caliber player in each series victory. Listed above are some of the milestones Antetokounmpo reached during the Finals, but it should be noted that Paul reached a milestone, too: he is now the first player in NBA history whose teams have lost four series in which they enjoyed a 2-0 lead. 

It has been fashionable for well over a decade to call Paul the best leader in the NBA. I am not trying to bash Paul--he is without question an outstanding player--but he is praised well beyond what the factual record supports. Since I started 20 Second Timeout in June 2005, the best leaders in the NBA have been the players who have led their teams to multiple titles, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. Leadership means actually taking a group of people somewhere significant that they have not been to before. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said something very interesting while Antetokounmpo took over game six, noting that Antetokounmpo's play is speaking so loudly that Antetokounmpo does not have to say a word. Leadership, as Van Gundy defined it, is not so much about what you say but rather about what you do. Antetokounmpo plays so hard and so unselfishly that he sets the standard and the tone for his team.

The only current star player who plays as hard as Antetokounmpo is Russell Westbrook--but the difference is that Antetokounmpo is seven feet tall, while Westbrook is 6-3. Antetokounmpo can reach a level that even Westbrook cannot quite reach. 
Last season, even with the Bucks on the verge of playoff elimination, I touted Antetokounmpo as "an MVP caliber player who could be the best player on a championship team" and I contrasted his skill set and mentality with James Harden's skill set and mentality. My long term predictions about players who can--or cannot--lead a team to a title are often correct (which is not to suggest that every prediction that I made was correct, but my skill set based player evaluations have aged well, and I have often contradicted the "experts"). After the Lakers got rid of Shaquille O'Neal, I was right that even if O'Neal's Heat won that trade in the short term the Lakers would be the long term winners by building around Bryant, who I asserted only needed a competent big man to lead the Lakers back into championship contention--and that is exactly what happened after the Lakers acquired a one-time All-Star who was never considered an elite player, let alone a future Hall of Famer, until after he played alongside Bryant. I never ranked Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, or James Harden as highly as many media members did/do, and those players were/are who I thought they were/are in terms of championship-level success. I tapped Russell Westbrook as a future MVP at a time when many "experts" doubted that he could even play point guard in the NBA. I continued to believe that Antetokounmpo was on a championship path while the "experts" bashed him and his coach.
There is so much emphasis on tanking, three point shooting, and building "super teams" that it is refreshing to see a championship won the old fashioned way. Antetokounmpo mentioned during the post-game press conference that he could have taken the easy route by joining a "super team" to win a title, but that he is "stubborn" and thus he stayed in Milwaukee. All championships matter, but there is a good subjective argument that this title means more than several of the titles that have been won recently by players who fled their original teams to join forces with other star players. The Bucks did not tank--Antetokoumpo is not even a Lottery pick--and Antetokounmpo remained loyal to the team that drafted him. The Bucks attack the paint on offense, and they often play a "drop" defense that protects the paint at the expense of giving up some open three pointers.

It looked like Stephen A. Smith was going to burst into tears when he described how badly he feels about Paul not winning a title. Disregarding Smith's obvious biases--no serious-minded person considers Smith to be an authentic, objective journalist anyway--the sentiment is misplaced. Paul is not some tragic figure who has been denied a title due to unfair forces or events beyond his control; he has hopped from team to team trying to latch on to a group that can carry him to a ring, and in a closely contested six game series versus Milwaukee he had multiple opportunities to take over and lead his team to a championship. He is just not good enough. Paul is not as good as Antetokounmpo--or Bryant or James or Duncan or Leonard or Durant or Nowitzki. That is the simple reason that Paul has not won a title.

Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer have been the targets of harsh criticism from uninformed commentators (including Smith, of course), but they are now champions (Budenholzer already was a champion as an assistant coach in San Antonio), and if the Bucks stay healthy and stay together they will have a good opportunity to win more titles.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM



At Wednesday, July 21, 2021 5:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

props to Giannis, he reached another level in this game. Imagine if he starts hitting his FTs consistently! The Bucks had a ton of luck in this playoff run (Nets losing two stars, Embiid getting hurt, Trae getting hurt, Giannis NOT getting seriously hurt) but I think they were a worthy champion in the end.

CP3 is not a tragic figure, he has banked over 300M and will sleep just fine. Perhaps this is karma for the constant flopping and cheap shots.

At Wednesday, July 21, 2021 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 2010s turned me off from basketball. That was the super team era at its most egregious. We had the Heat for the first half, and the Warriors for the second half. It was not fun. It was boring. These finals were a welcome change of pace alone, but even better, an NBA Playoff final 4 of the Bucks, Hawks, Clippers, and Suns makes me hopeful that the 2020s will be more enjoyable for me.

At Thursday, July 22, 2021 8:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the reason that CP3 gets so many accolades for leadership are:
1/ His team-mates make the comment on how much he's helped them to become better players (or, if someone is going to do a "analysis" of statistics of all of CP3's team mates from the time he joined the team and show that he did not make them "better", then at least they felt like he helped them and leadership is ultimately empowering people to feel they can do it). A lot of vets get this praise; Kobe and KG immediately sprint to mind. Others undoubtably lead on the court but the "leader" mantle does not fit as well when they're in their civies; KD, Kawhi, Harden.
2/ CP3 appears very vocal on the court, during timeouts, via the Players association. Leaders need to communicate. Winning is usually done pre-season and during training. During the game it's minor things that need to be tweaked, called out or re-enforced. Good leaders see these things and get others to see them too.
Good leaders need; to be trust-worthy, experienced, be able to communicate, have charisma.
Good leaders don't need; to be 7ft tall, to be able to play every position on the court, to be young, to be lucky.

CP3 doesn't just deserve a Championship, he has to earn it with a team like everyone else. He does deserve to be recognised for what he does regardless of the absence of a Championship.
I hope one day he gets his Championship as a coach or other role in the NBA.

For the record I do support many of your other themes:
1 - Westbrook is unfairly maligned
2 - Harden and Melo are unfairly overhyped
3 - Stephen A Smith is a hack and probably should not have a paid media job.
4 - It shows a lack of respect and understanding that the NBA (and the media) does not do more to highlight the history of the ABA.
5 - Statistics don't tell the complete story

At Friday, July 23, 2021 12:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


All champions benefit from at least some luck/good fortune. I picked the Bucks to win the title before the playoffs began, and they are indeed a worthy champion. The Suns actually had a lot more luck/good fortune than the Bucks did, and everyone can see now that the only way the Suns could have won the title is if Giannis had not been able to play, much like the Suns previously beat teams that were missing Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and Anthony Davis (not that all of those players are on the same level, but they are all either the first or second best player on their respective teams).

In my Finals recaps I did not talk much about Paul's flopping and cheap shots, but you are correct that he has done a lot of both during the course of his career.

At Friday, July 23, 2021 12:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Not only were the super teams annoying, but the misapplication of "advanced basketball statistics" and the horrific tanking (most notably by the 76ers) also detracted from the game. Giannis and the Bucks are a breath of fresh air.

At Friday, July 23, 2021 12:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I understand why Paul is praised and I am not disputing the notion that he is a good leader. I am questioning the widespread narrative that he is the best leader in the NBA. There is little to no evidence to support that notion, for the reasons that I explained in this article and in previous articles.

I am not sure if your line about being 7 feet tall, lucky, etc. is meant to be a shot at Giannis, but Giannis has worked for everything that he has, and with the skills he developed he would be a great player even if he were 6 feet tall (but, of course, he would not be the best player in the league, because it is virtually impossible for a 6 foot tall player to be the best player in the league).

Giannis is a much better leader than Paul in my estimation, and not just because Giannis now has a ring. Giannis stayed with one team, built a program from the ground up, and he has had a great positive impact on his teammates.

At Friday, July 23, 2021 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Intelligent analysis as always. How do you feel about the whole mediascape responding with jubilation towards the assumption that Milwaukee winning will now change the league?

I ask because as much I really do think its better for the league to go by this example of Giannis winning with a small market team, I can't help but think the reaction premature and overblown. The odds are not its favor. Had Durant had a healthy Harden or even Irving, then the whole controversy regarding the validity of creating a super team would be undeniable. As a matter of fact, it's still most likely undeniable.

Would like to hear your thoughts on this

At Saturday, July 24, 2021 11:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure that the "whole mediascape" is jubilant about Milwaukee's win or is assuming that this win will change the league. Many pundits seem almost grief-stricken that Paul did not win, though it would be very interesting to poll the NBA players and see how they feel about Paul, particularly if truth serum is administered and/or anonymity is assured. I suspect that media members are much fonder of Paul than his peers are.

I picked the Bucks to win the championship before the playoffs began. I am not convinced that even if the Nets had been healthy--which would have gone against a season-long trend--that the Nets, after playing just seven games together as a core group during the regular season, would have defeated the Bucks. Just because the series went seven games anyway we cannot assume that the Nets would have won if Irving had played, because we don't know what the chemistry would have been like.

There is no doubt that super teams have often been formidable when they are created, but we have also seen that such teams can be beaten. To cite two examples, the Lakers beat the first modern super team, the KG-Pierce-Allen Celtics, and the Heat lost twice in the Finals after becoming a super team.

I prefer teams to be built from the ground up and to form organic, sustainable rivalries, as opposed to teams being put together in one summer of superstars joining forces.

I think, and have already written, that if the Bucks stay healthy and stay together then they can win multiple titles. Great players sometimes have to go through challenges and overcome obstacles before winning their first ring, but after they break through they often win the next ring pretty quickly. Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James are five players who went through some battles and then won a second title in a row after winning their first.


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