Surely, someone will disagree. No athlete has 100 percent job approval, not even the great ones, not even the ones with big, winning personalities. So maybe this statement will be proven wrong a hundred times over by a cornerstone of contrarians and iconoclasts and Phoenix Suns fans. Here goes anyway:
Nobody roots against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now, that isn’t to say the world (outside Arizona) has been transformed to a cult of Milwaukee Bucks fans, hopeful to see a coronation Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum. It certainly isn’t to say that Antetokounmpo is perfect; part of his raw appeal, in fact, is that he is most assuredly imperfect, especially at that skill all of us try to hone from age 4 to age 94: free-throw shooting.
But does anyone really not like seeing Giannis do well? Does anyone feel anger, angst or anxiety for having seen what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have done across this NBA spring, thrashing the Heat and surviving against the Nets and squeezing past the Hawks and, now, standing one home victory away from claiming the Bucks’ — and Milwaukee pro sports’ — first championship since 1971?
“He’s really in his own category, honestly,” Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said Monday afternoon. “He’s really his own player, and you can stick him into literally any lineup, you could have two bigs already, two guards, two wings, whatever it is, and you can still throw him in and he’s going to find a way to fit in just right and still stand out.”
It isn’t just the physical gifts, though. Yes, those are extraordinary, and for many who have borne witness to his every-night excellence for the first time it can be eye-opening. For these Finals alone he has been as good as anyone could have asked: 32.0 points per game on 61 percent shooting, 13.0 rebounds per, 5.6 assists.
He has also contributed the two most spectacular moments of the Finals: his out-of-nowhere block of Deandre Ayton at the end of Game 4, and the I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw finish of Jrue Holliday’s alley-oop at the end of Game 5 that capped Holliday’s strip-and-steal of Devin Booker’s potential game-winning drive.
But no. It’s more than that. Surely, you can go back to Dec. 15, when Antetokounmpo decided to re-up with the Bucks for five years and $228 million, committing to the Bucks at a time when it seemed they might be in repose, not ascent, depriving the NBA of a free-agent chase scene that would’ve left past LeBron/KD pursuits in the dust.
“This is my home, this is my city,” he’d said in tweeting his decision that day. “I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next five years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”
Milwaukee is an underrated city, by the way, although unless you are Arthur Fonzarelli or the Big Ragu, that may come as a surprise. Still, it is not Chicago. It is not LA. It is not New York. And while Lopez, Khris Middleton and Holliday are fine wingmen, they are the crew Giannis was put together with, not one he engineered on his own. At a time when it feels like fans are tiring of do-it-yourself superteams, Giannis played within the old system.
He comes across as genuine. He is clearly a good teammate; when he was injured in the Atlanta series, his bench reactions were more enthusiastic than the old M.L. Carr towel-waving act that has long been the gold standard for NBA scrubs. He is not even overexposed, which is perhaps the lone complaint of that other superstar of these Finals, Chris Paul, who is forever peddling State Farm’s “surprisingly great rates” when he isn’t running the Suns’ offense.
“I don’t think there’s been anybody that has gone all the way and win the NBA championship by himself,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to do it together. I need Khris to be great, I need Jrue to be great. Once you see a team and guys put everything, all the effort, they compete and you see how tired they are. They go through this journey with you.”
Now he sits 48 minutes from completing this feel-good journey. He has blossomed from project to superstar before our eyes. He has endured playoff agonies. Kevin Durant tried to bully him out of the playoffs, then a balky knee against Atlanta tried, then an 0-2 deficit against the Suns. Yet here he is. If the Bucks win, perhaps not everyone will share the triumph of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But will anyone really feel bad about it? Anyone?