Giannis Gets ‘Awesome Dunks’, but Without 3-Point Shot Can He Really Be MVP?

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 29: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks the ball against the Brooklyn Nets on December 29, 2018 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The NBA is going through a three-point revolution, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is leading his own counterattack, negating the long ball with monstrous in-game, posterizing dunks.

On any given night, while volume shooters like Stephen Curry and James Harden launch shots from well beyond the arc, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar—who is only shooting 16.7 percent from three—is getting it done inside.

Antetokounmpo can’t shoot it from deep, and he doesn’t want or need to.

“Dunks…that’s one of the things I do well,” Antetokounmpo told B/R last week. “Driving the ball, getting into the paint, making plays. And sometimes, I get some awesome dunks.”

Looking back, it isn’t hard to pinpoint the moment when Antetokounmpo vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the league’s most creative and vicious dunkers.

Khris Middleton stole a pass from the New York Knicks’ Lance Thomas in a February game last season and was off to the races. With Tim Hardaway Jr., the only Knick to get back on defense, in front of him, Middleton tossed a lob high in the air to the trailing Antetokounmpo, who rose to extended heights and hurdled over Hardaway as if he were scaling a New York City skyscraper and tattooed the rim.

It wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as the “Dunk of Death,” Vince Carter’s ruinous bang over 7’2″ Frenchman Frederic Weis during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but it was close.

“Giannis is able to dunk on everyone because of a combination of things,” Brook Lopez said. “He has length, he’s strong, he’s athletic. He’s just such a perfect specimen.”

Through 38 games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per contest while shooting 58.1 percent from the floor. That number shoots up exponentially when broken down to just his work around the basket (71.7 percent).

Translation: He is going to the rim, and there’s nothing defenders can do about it.

Every time he gets the ball in the open court or backs down a defender on the low block, the two-time All-Star morphs into a tall, hip-hop-cultured version of Doctor Octopus. Much like Spider-Man’s sworn enemy, when Antetokounmpo jumps, he becomes a windmill of limbs. His tentacle-like arms extend like mechanical extremities over, around and through his man to punch the ball into the hoop.

“Whenever he attacks the rim, I feel like he’s going to dunk it,” Sterling Brown said. “I mean, we see it all the time in practice, so yeah, he’s one of a kind.”

Antetokounmpo is third in the league in dunks with 152, behind Rudy Gobert (seven more games played) and Clint Capela (four more) and is on pace to break the single-season record that Dwight Howard set with 266. (The stat only goes back to the 2000-01 season.)

And sure, Gobert and Capela have more dunks (in more games played), but they come by way of assists, lobs and put-backs. The Bucks’ franchise player isn’t just dunking; he’s dunking on people. The 6’11” point forward is serving more dunk platters to unsuspecting defenders than any other player since Blake Griffin, and he’s doing it unassisted.

Back in November, Antetokounmpo dunked all over the Nuggets, weaponizing tomahawks, two-handers and alley-oops, including two power stuffs on Paul Millsap and one seismic facial on Mason Plumlee.

“We definitely hype him up after a dunk, no question,” Brown said. “Every time he gets one, if you look at the bench, you can see guys going nuts. It’s just a great, energetic play for us, and he’s just so great to watch.”

Antetokounmpo is hard to stop, but according to conventional wisdom, he shouldn’t be. He has no dependable outside shot, so everyone knows he’s taking it strong to the hole. ”He reminds me of a non-shooting Kevin Durant,” Paul Millsap told B/R.

And yet, no one can stop him from invading the paint and rattling the rim. The posters keep mounting, and he’s creating his own glides to the basket that begin with the graceful gallop of a thoroughbred and end viciously when he jams the ball with a snap of his arm like the crack of a whip.

“It’s his IQ,” Brown said. “He knows how to play the game. He knows how to get to the basket. He’s crafty, too, so he knows how to shake the defender, get him off-balance, and get to the rim and finish.”

Antetokounmpo’s dunks are not gravity-defying acrobatics so much as they are aerial battering rams, which is reminiscent of part Dominique Wilkins, part Shawn Marion, part Shaq. It’s natural to want to compare him to other legends in the pantheon of dunking greats, but he’s unique.

“He’s a freak of nature,” Brown said. “The way he attacks the rim viciously every time. He does things that I’ve never seen before and a lot of guys can’t do.”

For Antetokounmpo, basketball is a cutthroat battle of wills. He’s not fraternizing with opposing players over the summer; he’s building and growing in seclusion, charging into each season ready to deploy his new weapons of mass posterization.

Before former NBA Commissioner David Stern called his name in 2013, he was a mystery pick, known only for his 7’3″ wingspan and dunks for Filathlitikos, a Greek second-division team. In the six years since then, he’s added 57 pounds of muscle to give him the strength to overpower defenders looking to thwart his sky-walking talents.

Detroit Pistons power forward Jon Leuer knows that better than anyone.

New head coach Mike Budenholzer came in and tailored his offense around his star’s penchant for dunking and finishing around the rim, allowing him the space to create and get into the lane. The team is thriving as a result: Milwaukee (29-12) has the second-best record in the league, making Antetokounmpo a leading candidate for MVP.

Kawhi Leonard is also a top contender, as is Harden, who went on a tear in December. The reigning MVP wants the Maurice Podoloff Trophy again but said this of Antetokounmpo: ”He’s up there. He’s definitely [elite], just the way he impacts the game.”

But as much as Antetokounmpo is dominating the league without needing to take a jump shot, he’s still not ready to crown himself the best. At least not yet.

“To be honest with you, all I care about right now is getting better, helping my team win,” Antetokounmpo said. “And [becoming the league’s best player is] going to take care of itself. I know that one day it might happen. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there, because that’s what I want to be.”

No one predicted Milwaukee would be this good.

The Bucks are fourth in offensive rating (113.3) and third in defensive rating (104.4). They score the second-most points (117.2) and lead the league in defensive and overall rebounds (49.2). That’s in great part thanks to Antetokounmpo’s leadership, rebounding, defense and passing. Not to mention his knack for bringing the ruckus on a nightly basis with his thunderous, gravity-defying dunks.

“He’s not normal,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I mean, that guy is seven feet and has the control and all that he does. He loves to play, you can see it. He loves to practice. The guy is a great, great player, so he’s in the conversation for MVP because they’re playing so well, and he should be.”

The Bucks have only played half the season. That means the MVP race is far from over, and Antetokounmpo has plenty of time to make his case.

“He’s worked really hard to get to where he’s at,” Lopez said. “And he knows he has so many levels that he can reach. He’s always in the gym working on his craft, getting better each and every day.”

It’s an odd turn of events, but it seems as though the long ball has become sexier than the dunk. When Curry drains a shot from the logo or Harden jukes his way into a step-back three, fans go nuts. Of the last four MVPs, only Russell Westbrook is known for punishing the rim. But even he’s relied on shooting threes to be effective, at least prior to this season.

Not Antetokounmpo.

If he does win, it could mean that in the battle of three-pointers and slam dunks, the importance of the latter might be making a comeback.

“It’s our belief inside this locker room, and a lot just around the league, that we have the best player in the league right here,” Lopez said. “He does it in so many ways. He makes so many of his players better. He’s all over the court constantly. It’s so impressive to watch every night.”

         

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.

NBA News

via Bleacher Report – NBA http://bit.ly/2gMI6gF

January 14, 2019 at 05:20AM

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