Giannis Antetokounmpo won his first NBA championship the hard way. Despite two devastating playoff exits, he signed a supermax contract extension with the Bucks prior to the season, and pledged to help his team fulfill their ultimate goal.
And that’s exactly what the Bucks accomplished. Here’s hoping Jayson Tatum was watching.
Giannis put on a legendary Finals performance, averaging an incredible 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in the series — while shooting 61.8 percent from the floor. His output in Game 7 was nothing short of extraordinary: 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, and maybe most impressively, a nearly perfect 17-for-19 from the free throw line.
Oh, and he put up all of those numbers with a hyperextended left knee.
There is something deliciously old school about the way Milwaukee won its first championship in 50 years. The Bucks were carried by a transcendent superstar and his running mate, Khris Middleton, while everyone else filled their role. When Giannis signed his five-year extension worth an estimated $228 million, he entrusted the Bucks to surround him with the necessary championship pieces.
They rewarded his faith with a blockbuster deal for Jrue Holiday, surrendering three future first-round picks for the dynamic point guard. Though Holiday was terrible offensively against the Suns— he went 4-for-19 from the field in Game 6 — he enjoyed the best overall plus-minus of all players in the postseason.
Tatum is about to embark on the first season of his supermax deal (five years, $163 million), and the Celtics are rightfully allowing him to mold their organization. Tatum endorsed Ime Udoka for the head coaching job, undoubtedly the most important point in his favor.
The Celtics may not be championship ready next season, but they’re already demonstrating to Tatum they’re committed to building a winner around him — just like the Bucks showed Giannis.
It won’t be easy for Brad Stevens to assemble the Celtics’ next championship roster. Boston is not a premier free agent destination and NBA players aren’t exactly dying to spend their prime years in a city that shuts down at 2:00 a.m.
We also have our troubling history with race.
But similar strikes can be made against Milwaukee, far from a sexy destination. The Bucks selected Giannis with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and won their title eight years later. During that time, Giannis has developed into one of the best players in league history, winning two MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, and making five All-Star teams. His ascendance into the pantheon of NBA greatness certainly helped matters.
But that’s all the more reason why he could’ve left. It must have been tempting. LeBron recruited Anthony Davis to LA; Kyrie, Harden and Durant built their super team in Brooklyn.
But as J. Cole says, there’s beauty in the struggle. Appropriately, Giannis has the song lyric in his Twitter profile.
He essentially said as much after the game.
“Coming back, I was like, 'This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us,’” Giannis said. “It's easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It's easy. ... I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship.”
He delivered the closing line with theatrical gusto, banging on the dais for emphasis: “But this is the hard way to do it, and this is way to do it, and we did it. We f— did it!”
Over the next couple of years, Tatum could be summoned for several recruiting pitches, potentially beginning with Team USA’s chase for the gold medal in Tokyo. He’s already played social media footsie with Kevin Durant.
But Giannis showed it’s still possible to stay in one city and grow with a singular franchise. After great regular seasons, the Bucks suffered brutal playoff defeats to the Raptors and Heat in consecutive years. Other stars might have packed up and left for glitzier pastures.
Giannis stayed. And won.
It’s the best lesson Tatum could learn.