National Basketball Association

The pressure is on Giannis Antetokounmpo to turn Bucks-Nets into a series

June 10

What was supposed to be a great heavyweight fight looks like it might become an early-round knockout.

But if the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks has any chance of turning into the legendary bout some NBA observers predicted it would be, it’s going to come down to the play of one man: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

When you examine the series so far – with the Nets holding a 2-0 lead heading into Thursday night’s Game 3 – a casual glance reveals that Antetokounmpo’s numbers are just fine. He’s averaging 26.0 PPG. He’s grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out four assists per contest. And he’s shooting 61.5% from the field.

But when you dig a little deeper – and also consider that he was the NBA’s MVP in 2019 and 2020 – things become less impressive. He’s 2-for-10 at the free-throw line in the series, for instance, and he’s shot poorly from outside the paint as well, going 3-for-13 in the two games so far, including 2-for-8 from 3-point range.

One of those disappointed in Giannis' showing is Colin Cowherd, who said on "The Herd" that the Bucks superstar isn’t even one of the 10 most valuable players left in the postseason.

Expectations are always going to be higher when considering the impact of a player of Giannis' talent. 

So, what’s on the line for him come Thursday night? Chris Broussard put it simply on "First Things First."

"Pride and reputation," Broussard said. "There’s no shame in losing to a better team. … If they lose to Brooklyn, it’s understandable. We see what Brooklyn is. But he’s got to go down swinging. Other great players – Michael Jordan, LeBron James, many other greats – have lost playoff series to better teams, but they balled out in losing. When you look at Giannis, the fact is the past two playoffs, he has not balled out. He has gone out with a whimper.

"If they lose, they lose, but he’s got to make Brooklyn feel him and understand they’re playing one of the best players in the world".

And that’s the crux of the issue. The Nets were built to win a championship – not a couple years in the future, but now. That’s what happens when you combine three of the best offensive players of an era in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

So it’s not a surprise the Nets hold a 2-0 lead in the series after two games in Brooklyn. It’s more about the ease with which they've done it, hardly breaking a sweat with an average score of 120-97.

Nick Wright took all of this into account, going beyond Broussard's comments. Wright claimed that if Giannis doesn’t raise his game and at least put up a fight against the Nets, it would diminish his regular-season dominance over the last couple of seasons.

"What he has to lose if they get swept by the Nets, or go down 0-3 to the Nets, which means the series is over, is massive," Wright said. "... There is no excuse tonight … Even if the Bucks lose, Giannis has to enforce his will on this basketball game, or else what he does in  the regular season for the remainder of his career are going to feel somewhat meaningless."

Skip Bayless, speaking on "Undisputed," agreed, predicting that the Nets would sweep aside the Bucks with ease. 

"I don’t see a team or a superstar with what I call ‘playoff backbone.’ Look at what the recurring pattern here has been," Bayless said, while diving into the Bucks’ recent playoff flops. "When they crumble they just fall apart."

Nets coach Steve Nash has announced that his team will continue to be without Harden and veteran forward Jeff Green in Game 3, which only adds to the pressure on Giannis. Antetokounmpo might not be able to single-handedly beat Brooklyn, but he needs to make the attempt, said Wright, and he needs to do it now.

"(Giannis needs to say) every time Blake Griffin is on me, I’m going to the rim," Wright said. "And if that means I’ve gotta shoot 20 free throws then I gotta shoot 20 free throws. But if we’re going to go down, we’re going down through me. … They’ve got nobody on this team that can stop me."

Time to put your dukes up, Giannis.

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