Milwaukee Bucks: Is Giannis Antetokounmpo Ready For His Playoff Moment?

Jan 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is congratulated after scoring the game winning basket at the buzzer against New York Knicks during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Bucks won 105-104. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is congratulated after scoring the game winning basket at the buzzer against New York Knicks during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Bucks won 105-104. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability and rising star isn’t in doubt, but is he ready to take the next step with a signature playoff moment for the Milwaukee Bucks?

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar.

This season has been a coming out party for the lovable Greek forward. He made the All-Star game for the first time, became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top-20 in the league in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, and he led the Milwaukee Bucks to the playoffs despite the adversity of losing fellow young star Jabari Parker.

At this point, nobody is arguing that Giannis is a superstar. Some even think he has a chance to be the best player in the league soon. After showing flashes of brilliance in the 2015-16 season, Giannis has taken the league by storm this year with breathtaking highlights and insane stat lines.

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While the highlights and stats are amazing, the Bucks and Raptors series is not about either of those things. It has been a series built around defense and game-to-game adjustments. Giannis had been the best player in the series prior to Game 4, and that is the reason the Bucks are tied up with the Eastern Conference’s third best team heading into Game 5.

After their embarrassing Game 3 performance, though, the Raptors made the necessary adjustments and played with an attitude that they had not yet shown in this series. In 24 hours the Bucks went from the aftermath of an overwhelming win to the uncertainty of trying to make their own adjustments in order to take two out of three games from the Raptors with at least one of those wins coming in Toronto.

Whether the Bucks win this series or not, one question will be answered by the time it’s all said and done. Is Antetokounmpo ready to take the next step on his ascent up the NBA ranks, or will we have to wait?

It seems inevitable that it is coming, as Giannis has proven his worth against the NBA’s best already. However, fair or unfair, NBA superstars are often judged by what they do in the playoffs.

The league’s best players are expected to find ways to will their teams to victory even when opponents are making adjustments against them and trying to take their strengths away. This is Giannis’ first experience of dealing with this type of attention in such a high pressure environment.

Nobody expects Giannis to develop a reliable jump shot mid-series or skip the growing pains that every young star must go through, but the next test for the Bucks’ All-Star is to just find a way to get it done.

The playoffs have a way of slowing the game down and making offensive basketball much more difficult. Opponents know every set you will run, they know the spots you want to get to, and they know what you don’t feel comfortable doing as well. This is why in the playoffs finding a way to impact the game on every possession is more important than the stats or the highlight-reel plays.

LeBron James‘ Game 7 performance in last year’s finals is an example of a superstar being the greatest player on the floor while struggling offensively. LeBron shot just 9-24 in that game and 1-5 from distance. What he did do is score 27 points, grab 11 boards, dish out 11 assists, and throw in two steals and three blocks — there seems to be one block I remember better than the rest. Most importantly, he led his team to victory despite the attention he received and his own individual struggles.

There are plenty of other performances from great players in the playoffs where the final stat line had some ugly spots, but anyone who watched the game knew who the best player on the floor was. While it may not be fair to compare Giannis to the man who has been the best player in the NBA for around a decade now, the comparison is more about how Giannis has to figure out how to still be the best player on the floor even when Toronto is building a wall between him and the rim and forcing him to play to his weaknesses.

Giannis seemed to figure this out and adopt this mentality somewhat in Game 2 of the series. While he struggled with his shot in that game as well, going 9-24, he grabbed 15 rebounds and handed out seven assists. Even in a game the Bucks lost and he struggled, there was little doubt about who the best player on the floor was.

That changed in Game 4 of this series. Every player has the right to have bad nights, but this game wasn’t the same as Game 2. Giannis not only struggled with his shot, but he couldn’t figure out how to impact the game with his passing skills or physical presence either.

The 22-year-old seemed frustrated by the Raptors defensive strategy as well as the lack of foul calls he was receiving. Instead of using his all-around game to contribute in other ways, he pressed the issue in Game 4, passing less and dribbling more. In fairness, the entire Bucks’ offense lacked ball movement, but Giannis is the guy who’s burdened with the responsibility of leading the team out of the inept, dysfunctional mess that the Bucks called their offense in Game 4.

To show just how little Giannis impacted Game 4, lists his PIE, Player Impact Estimate, as just a 2.0 in Game 4. The stat is designed to calculate a player’s impact on each specific game. For comparison, even in Milwaukee’s first loss of the series that same number was a 14.3 for Giannis. In short, Giannis wasn’t Giannis in Game 4.

The Raptors certainly deserve a lot of credit for Giannis’ struggles, but while they can make things difficult on the Bucks’ young star, they can’t control his mind-set. The easy dunks and open driving lanes that were there in the first three games of the series are a thing of the past. This is what happens in the playoffs; the Raptors have adjusted. Giannis must now adjust too.

Giannis will be a perennial All-Star, and he may very well be the NBA’s best player one day. Before he can accomplish all of that, he must first make a smaller step. He must find a way to consistently be the best player on the court in every game, and this includes the playoffs, when teams are game planning against him and taking away the paint.

He has shown flashes of taking this step, and if he does, the Bucks will upset the third seeded Raptors, and the young phenom will next square off with the man many believe to be the current best player in the world.

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In the meantime, Milwaukee’s crucial postseason spell has arrived, now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if Antetokounmpo is ready to deliver his playoff moment along with it.