BOSTON “He’s a Freak because of his height, his length, his height, and the way those limbs fit together in beautiful harmony.
But the other weird part of Giannis Antetokounmpo? His astonishing ability is matched only by his chronic availability.
He is human, after all, with flesh and blood, though you rarely see either of them displayed helplessly on the ground. Giannis is nearly indestructible that way, which makes him a rarity in today’s NBA: a superstar who plays with and by contact, but rarely gets injured.
There was a moment in Game 1 of Bucks Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Celtics that would have shaken other players to the bone. Giannis collided with Daniel Theis, who is all muscle and tattoos, and fell hard. So what happened? Giannis simply shook off the pain, if there was any, and jumped to his feet. Meanwhile, none of the Bucks showed any concern.
Despite suffering from ankle and wrist pain, which is more of an annoyance than anything, Giannis plays and keeps playing, and just laughs when someone brings up the subject.
“First of all, I thrive on the physical,” he said. “I like to feel beaten after games.”
He laughs again.
“You probably think I’m a weirdo.”
In fact, more like a freak of nature. Giannis has only suffered a semi-severe injury once in his nine-year career – more on that in a moment – which is rather unusual, given the attention he’s garnering near the hoop and the number of times it lands on the floor. He’s the anti-Anthony Davis in that regard, a star who always finds a way to play and a franchise player who’s not used to being managed in charge.
The list of stars and franchise players who haven’t been so lucky is long: Steph Curry, LeBron James (recently, at least), Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, etc., etc. Every year, it seems, someone falls prey to something. Only Nikola Jokic is equal to Giannis in terms of durability and reliability.
This is largely due to Giannis’ physical development. As a rookie, he was skinny, just a bunch of limbs flying around. Since then, Giannis has added muscle without bulk while maintaining his athletic ability.
“He’s an incredible talent and someone who takes care of himself and prepares in the right way,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Plus, once he became a consistent All-Star, the Bucks never knocked him down. His matches are not managed, only his minutes. Giannis averages just 32 minutes per game for his career which is a light load compared to other players of his level. Rather than sitting down, Giannis only plays when needed, and not much more.
Keep in mind that Giannis, with the ball, plays downhill – constantly charging the basket, with the occasional body contortion and drawing contact. That should increase the chances of something happening, right? Well, in a sense, yes: Over the past five years, he’s averaged nearly 10 free throw attempts per game, which speaks to his ability to draw fouls. Yet he gets up off the ground every time.
Until last spring, when he didn’t. Who could forget how Giannis sent a chill through Milwaukee when he suffered a hyperextended left knee injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks? The graphic drop and its immediate knee grab and facial expression let you know it wasn’t just a trip. Giannis didn’t finish that streak — the Bucks still won, coincidentally helped by a freak injury to Trae Young when he stepped on a referee’s foot — and Giannis’ status in the NBA Finals was initially questioned.
He played anyway – never missed a game, in fact – and grew stronger and more robust as this series went on, closing the Suns in style with a 50-piece.
And now this season, lingering issues aside, Giannis seems determined to replicate last year’s title run. He hasn’t missed a playoff game and is once again extremely active at both ends of the court, especially at the rim, where contact is constant. He’s averaging more rebounds (13.3), assists (7.2) and blocks (1.5) than he did last postseason. Meanwhile, the Bucks take care of the absence of Khris Middleton.
Because of this, Giannis’ impact has only grown for the Bucks, especially his improved passing and court awareness, which allows his teammates to have an open eye.
Giannis’ ability to stay on his feet will be tested against the Celtics. Not only are they a top defensive team, but they bring size with Theis, Robert Williams III and Al Horford. That’s not to say any of these three will slow Giannis down – as he showed in Game 1, he presents a different challenge than the Celtics saw in Round 1 with Kevin Durant – but it will absorb its fair share of contact.
As Game 2 approaches on Tuesday (7 ET, DTT), the Celtics are in an inescapable situation, if only to avoid losing twice at home against a Milwaukee team that has just won a championship and with Giannis still as formidable.
As great as Giannis has been over the past five years, where he’s made a case for himself – with two Kia MVPs, a Kia Defensive Player of the Year, a Championship and a Finals MVP – that he’s the first talent in the game, none of it matters if he can’t dress himself.
If the best ability is availability, then Giannis wins on two fronts. The best player in the game cannot be stopped or ultimately slowed down.
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