Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been the NBA‘s hottest story this season. In fact, the reigning champions and reigning Finals MVP have kind of flown under the radar a bit, at least compared to some other teams and players from across the league’s landscape.
A ton of ink has been spilled about the championship merit of many of Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference contemporaries — namely the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics — and when it comes to the MVP conversation, Giannis hasn’t typically been the first, second, or even third name mentioned by most. Instead, the conversation has been dominated by the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant and others.
But, on Tuesday night in Philadelphia against the Sixers, Giannis and the Bucks issued a stern reminder to the rest of the league of just how good they are. The Bucks and Sixers entered the evening tied for second in the Eastern Conference standings with an identical 46-28 record, but when all was said and done, Milwaukee walked away with a 118-116 win and a one game lead over Philly in the standings.
In a game that felt like it could have taken place in April, May, or June, and certainly wasn’t short on star power, Antetokounmpo was the best player on the floor. He put consistent pressure on Philadelphia’s defense and generated high percentage looks for himself time and again, regardless of who was tasked with slowing him down. He had a couple of monstrous dunks (like the one below) and also peppered in some solid shooting from the midrange.
In all, Antetokounmpo tallied 40 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. It was the seventh straight road game that he scored 30-plus while shooting over 50 percent from the field — a mark that is tied for the second longest such streak in NBA history. Only Wilt Chamberlain had a longer streak, all the way back in 1961, per ESPN.
Chamberlain came in second in MVP voting that season, and there’s a chance that Antetokounmpo will finish similarly this season. His performance on Tuesday night should help his cause, though. Sometimes when a player wins the award a couple of times, voters get jaded (just ask LeBron James, who should certainly have more than four MVP Awards to his name), and that could work against Antetokounmpo. But for what it’s worth, his numbers are on par with his two previous MVP seasons.
Antetokounmpo punctuated his performance against the Sixers with a game-sealing block on an Embiid attempt that would have tied the game in the closing seconds of the contest.
It was the type of play — and overall performance — that could be interpreted as a message. What message? A “don’t forget about me or my team” message. In an Eastern Conference that is as deep as it has been in recent memory, the road still runs through Milwaukee.
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When it comes to the Bucks, Antetokounmpo is the man, but he’s still just a piece of the puzzle. To be at their best, the Bucks need Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton to also contribute in a major way, and that was the case on Tuesday. Middleton flirted with a triple-double (22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists), and Holiday did too (18 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds). When all three of those guys are clicking at the same time, the Bucks are exceedingly tough to topple, as we all saw last postseason.
The Bucks didn’t make a major, headline-generating trade in the middle of the season, like the Sixers and Nets did, and they didn’t do a complete 180 in the middle of the season like the Celtics. What they have done, though, is build on their success from last season, and in turn, put themselves in a position to find similar success this season. Regardless of where they finish in the conference standings, no one is going to want to see Milwaukee in the playoffs, and similarly, no one should be surprised if they make it out of the East for the second straight season.