Giannis Antetokounmpo deserved to win the Most Valuable Player award of the NBA finals. He put up incredible offensive numbers. He averaged 35.2 points per game, rebounded 13.7 boards per game, and added 5.0 assists per game in their triumph against the Phoenix Suns in six games. For the entire postseason, Antetokounmpo averaged 30.2 points per game, 12.8 rebounds per game, and 5.1 assists per game. Antetokounmpo was a force on the defensive end of the court as a rim protector and defender throughout the playoffs. He took away the Suns’ Deandre Ayton in the finals as that series moved on.
Yet perhaps the more impressive aspects to Antetokounmpo’s first NBA title go beyond those numbers.
For starters, the fact that Antetokounmpo evened played in the NBA finals was extraordinary. When he hyperextended his knee in the Eastern Conference finals, his ability to even compete for a championship looked in doubt. He was questionable up until tip-off for Game 1 of the finals against Phoenix. But not only was he able to play, but he also seemed to have no ill effects with that knee injury. The physical and mental conditioning he went through to prepare to play through that injury was incredible.
Antetokounmpo worked through a mental battle with his free-throw shooting. He lost his confidence at the free-throw line somewhere in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets. After making 67.5% of his free throws in the opening round against Miami, he made only 6 of 19 free throws in the first three games against the Nets. Then came the jeering from fans and his taking all ten seconds at the line as his battle with what the golfers call the yips was for all to see. Antetokounmpo missed more than half his free throw attempts in both the Brooklyn and Atlanta Hawks series in the Eastern Conference finals. Removing Antetokounmpo from the game in clutch situations became a topic of conversation. Yet he worked through the problem. Free throw shooting has never been the strength of his game, yet he recovered to shoot 62% from the charity stripe on his 85 free throw attempts in the NBA finals. In the Game 6 clincher, Antetokounmpo nailed 17 of his 19 free throw attempts. His success over this mental battle was critical in leading his team to a championship.
Antetokounmpo led his team to a title by accepting his limitations. After struggling with his 3-point shooting despite defenses begging for him to take open 3s, he changed his game and shot fewer 3s. After going 1 of 8 from 3-point land in Game 4 of the Brooklyn series, he does not even attempt a 3-point shot two games later in a critical Game 6 when they are down 3-2 in the series. In his ten games against Atlanta and Phoenix, only once does he attempt more than three shots from 3-point land. Antetokounmpo also accepted not being the primary ball-handler in crunch time as the playoffs went on with Kris Middleton having success making key shots.
Antetokounmpo’s offensive numbers and outstanding play on defense made him the obvious choice for the NBA finals MVP. Yet what may have been more impressive during this championship run was his perseverance, his success in confronting adversity, and his growth as a player by accepting his limitations. These are all qualities that will serve him quite well as his career continues to progress.
Good luck - TDG.