Giannis Antetokounmpo: Pressure reaching all-time levels entering Game 6

Since his rise to stardom with the Milwaukee Bucks, five-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven to be one of the most complex superstars in the NBA.

He is sensational during the regular season, racking up one of the most star-studded resumes by a 26-year-old ever seen. Highlighted by two MVPs, a 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year, and four All-NBA nominations, there is no questioning his greatness in the regular season. However, the biggest knock on the star has been his failure to get it done in the postseason, which is a conversation that has caught wind once again.

The reborn conversation comes after Giannis and the Bucks painfully blew a comfortable 17-point lead against the Brooklyn Nets in last night’s Game 5 matchup.

The entire Milwaukee roster, and head coach, for the matter, put together a pitiful performance in the second half. Giannis was specifically placed under a large microscope for his efforts, which were far from his best, to put it lightly.

His biggest lowlight of the night was taking a turnaround fadeaway jumper late in the fourth quarter with the game tied when he was being guarded by James Harden, who could barely walk up and down the court in this one.

Rather than posting up the much smaller and very injured Harden to get an efficient shot at the rim, Antetokounmpo missed a shot that would have given Milwaukee the lead. That is just one instance on the night, and although he finished with reputable numbers overall, Giannis has been bombarded with criticism for his efforts in the team’s crushing loss.

Following Game 5, many have begun questioning whether Antetokounmpo can genuinely be a first option player on a championship team. This is a common discussion that resurfaces every season, and despite what his resume says, many believe that sentiment is only growing more true with each passing year.

Antetokounmpo has been labeled a regular season phenom and a postseason failure by the outside world, and that will not change until he rewrites the narrative. He and the Bucks had a golden opportunity to potentially get the wheels turning on that thought as they held a 17-point lead on the Nets in this pivotal Game 5. However, that all came crashing down once Brooklyn came back and shocked the Bucks, who are now a laughing stock across the association.

All the pressure is on Giannis Antetokounmpo to deliver for the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 against the Brooklyn Nets

Following a devastating Game 5 ending, Game 6 is unquestionably the most important matchup of the season for the Bucks. With Brooklyn leading this best of seven series 3-2, it is do-or-die time for Milwaukee. If they lose, they will suffer yet another early postseason exit.  If they win, they live to fight another day in a Game 7 in Brooklyn.

With their season hanging in the balance, all eyes will shift to Antetokounmpo and whether or not he can step up to the plate. Right now, the outside world sees Giannis and the Bucks as nothing more than “chokers” and “frauds,” following last night’s crushing loss. They deserve every bit of the criticism after blowing a 17-point lead and fumbling in the fourth quarter with a stagnant offense that consistently took questionable shots and turned the ball over repeatedly.

If they will prove the world wrong, it starts with the two-time MVP taking over the game.

Antetokounmpo has had his share of highlights in this series, but potentially just as many lowlights, if not more. He is often not playing like the two-time MVP he genuinely is. He looks rattled, often afraid to be himself, take the ball inside, and do his damage close to the hoop. Perhaps this is because he is afraid of hearing the whistle and drawing an offensive foul. This appeared to be the case in Game 5, as he was called for it on multiple occasions before eventually fouling out late.

This timidness has resulted in the bulldozer that is Giannis Antetokounmpo taking more jumpers, particularly from distance, which is certainly not his forte. He is shooting just 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three in this series, but he continues letting them fly with confidence rather than taking it inside and risk potentially drawing an offensive foul. Was that fear of picking up a foul why Antetokounmpo settled for the turnaround fadeaway on Harden late in the game rather than bullying him right at the basket? Could be.

Among the other most prominent issues has been his free throw shooting, where he is now just 15-of-36 (41.7 percent) for the entire series. It is no secret that the MVP has never been the most upstanding shooter from the charity stripe, but his performance in this serious from the line has been grueling to watch. It oftentimes appears to be a recurring mental block just hindering him time and time again. Part of that could stem from the fact that he has been called for 10-second violations multiple times in this playoffs and knowing that he has to rush his routine is just throwing him off.

Another questionable aspect is his defense. Over the past three seasons, one of the most circulated narratives is that Giannis Antetokounmpo does not guard the opposing team’s best player, which is often true. Despite earning the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year award, head coach Mike Budenholzer seemingly rarely sticks Giannis on other superstars aside from round one, where he guarded Jimmy Butler primarily and did a fantastic job.

This strange line of thinking was certainly apparent in last night’s Game 5 loss as Kevin Durant went scorched earth and dropped 49 points on 69.6 percent shooting from the field and 44.4 percent from 3-point territory. Despite seeing Durant on the court for all 48 minutes, Giannis was scarcely ever matched up against him. That just does not make any sense whatsoever from his standpoint, but it might even be a bigger stain on Budenholzer’s coaching reputation, or whatever is still left intact of it after the loss.

Antetokounmpo acknowledged following the game that he wants to guard Durant in Thursday’s matchup. That line about doing so if his coach permits him to is certainly infuriating, considering it is seemingly the only logical option. The Defensive Player of the Year needs to push to make it happen to give his team the best possible chance to win this game.

With their season on the line, Giannis has to enter Game 6 with the do-or-die mindset knowing that this is the most crucial game of his career. It is more important than Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 against Toronto that saw the Bucks lose a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, and certainly more important than any game against the Miami Heat in last year’s postseason. This could be a turning point in his career and leave a lasting impression on his legacy with the championship window as wide open as ever.

Still, Giannis is not the sole reason why this team lost and why they must win tomorrow. Budenholzer is seemingly coaching himself out of town with his rash decision-making, and Khris Middleton is certainly fueling the narrative about him being a legitimate second option on a championship-caliber team after another poor shooting night in Game 5. The coaching staff and supporting cast must do a better job themselves.

Yet, it all starts with the 26-year-old who has an opportunity to etch his name in the history books as one of the greatest players ever to play this game. The Bucks are not quite finished off yet, but it will take back-to-back wins to advance to the next round, and time will tell if he and this team are built for the challenge ahead.