It’s hard to imagine a multitime MVP, 7-foot ball-handler who has barriers to overcome. But Giannis Antetokounmpo did. He entered the 2020-21 playoffs with questions about his postseason performance after series losses to the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and Miami Heat in 2020, when he averaged 22.7 and 21.8 points per game, respectively. But winning a championship, as Antetokounmpo and the Bucks did two nights ago, transforms previous letdowns into mere bumps in the road toward the ultimate achievement. Perspective, after all, is everything.
Antetokounmpo’s entire 2021 playoff run was unique. Since blocks and steals were added to the box score in 1973-74, only Giannis and LeBron James1 have tallied per-game averages of at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, one block and one steal over a full postseason. The way in which Antetokounmpo scored his points also set records. Since 1996-97, when Basketball-Reference.com’s database of shot types begins, Antetokounmpo’s 72 dunks over a full playoff run are the most by any player not named Shaquille O’Neal. He made the most ever shots from 5 feet or fewer and shot better on even more per-game attempts there in the Finals than he did in the regular season.
Yet Antetokounmpo found another gear of greatness when he reached the Finals. Yes, he hyperextended his knee in Game 4 against Atlanta, missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals and was listed as doubtful for Game 1 of Finals, but neither the injury nor gravity could hold him down. His series against the Phoenix Suns stands out as the pièce de résistance of his career. In fact, his six games rank as one of the greatest single series of all time: 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
Antetokounmpo matched James, O’Neal and Rick Barry with three 40-point games in a single Finals. Only two players have recorded four: Michael Jordan and Jerry West.
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While scoring statistics may be Antetokounmpo’s most eye-popping, his other box score contributions place him in elite company as well. He led both the Bucks and Suns in rebounds and blocks. In fact, only 29 players have ever grabbed more rebounds over a Finals series.2
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Antetokounmpo has always been unique because of the pairing of his size and athleticism with his skills. He has the body of a center and the talents of a guard, a duality that’s reflected in his box score output. His ranking on the rebound and block leaderboards would suggest he’s a big, but he ran more than four pick and rolls a game as the ball-handler in the Finals, averaging 1.44 points per chance, per Second Spectrum. The only players who averaged as many rebounds, blocks and assists per game in a single Finals series are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Tim Duncan and James. Antetokounmpo’s scoring was spectacular, but his tertiary skills alone place him alongside the greats.
Add it all together, and Antetokounmpo’s average game score in the Finals, a single number that compiles box score stats to reflect productivity, was the highest since 1983-84, when Basketball-Reference.com began calculating the number. His final game — in which he scored 50 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots — is the first of its kind not only in the Finals, but also in any round of the playoffs since blocks were added to the box score.Baylor and Pettit could have reached those marks had blocks been counted.">4 Those benchmarks are even rare in the regular season, having been reached only four times.
In addition to Antetokounmpo’s collection of numbers, some of his individual moments of brilliance channeled the spirits of Finals stars past. He blocked shots in transition like LeBron. He Eurostepped around defenders like Manu. He overwhelmed opponents in the paint like Shaq. Sports is generally a steady progression forward, with each competitor building on the styles and abilities of the last, but at times Antetokounmpo seems like an unfair combination of many of the game’s greats.
Antetokounmpo’s level of across-the-board dominance may be unique, but it’s not entirely unprecedented. James accomplished similar feats, if not identical ones. And their career arcs have followed comparable paths, with each winning his first championship only after winning multiple MVP awards.
But Antetokounmpo’s best comparison may be himself. He put together remarkably similar numbers in the regular seasons in which he won his two MVP awards. His per-100-possession numbers against the Suns of 43.5 points, 16.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals are comparable to his second MVP season, when he clocked season-long per-100-possession averages of 43.2 points, 19.9 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.4 steals.
That this level of performance isn’t new for Antetokounmpo should be frightening for future opponents. That he has achieved it for such extended stretches, now including the playoffs, means he’s not likely to stop.