TORONTO – There are all kinds of ways to define a superstar, that category of athlete who is better than almost all of his peers and often has no peers for years.
Generational talent. Special player (spoken with appropriate reverence). Difference maker.
As the Toronto Raptors get set for their pivotal Game 2 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday (“Must win?” DeMar DeRozan was asked — “Without a doubt”) it’s evident even from a one-game sample that there is only one truly special player on the floor at any given moment, and he doesn’t play for the Raptors.
This is no slight to DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, who have six all-star game appearance split between them, Olympic gold medals and deserving spots among the NBA’s elite — although the sooner they play up to their resumes the better from Toronto’s point of view as they seek to salvage a split while opening a series at home for the fifth time in four years.
They will be on the Raptors Mount Rushmore when their careers finish up, but they won’t be on the NBA’s version and there is no shame in that.
But the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo? There is a reason his nickname is ‘The Greek Freak.’ What else to call a long-armed seven-footer with giant hands, explosive athleticism that plays a 21st century version of point guard.
The nickname applies. He’s one of a kind in a league full of one-in-a-millions, and when he gets out in transition it’s not clear there’s been many – if any like him.
“He’s one of the top three or four of those guys,” Lowry was saying between games. “You got Russell [Westbrook], James [Harden], Bron [LeBron James], those guys are unbelievable at finishing. The things he can do with the ball, one dribble, two dribbles, half court, dunk it, he did some incredible things the whole season.”
“Those guys” are going to finish in the top three or four of the MVP voting this season. Antetokounmpo was fifth with a bullet on my ballot this year.
He’s only 22 and in his fourth season. But according to Basketball-Reference.com no other 22-year-old in NBA history matched the statistical thresholds – 22.9 points. 8.7 rebounds. 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.9 steals -- that Antetokounmpo did this past season.
Is he the next LeBron? Well consider their age 22, fourth-year seasons side-by-side and judge for yourself.
The strides he’s made in four seasons, from gangly, uncertain rookie to a not-so-fringe MVP suggest the best is yet to come.
But that’s for the future. The Raptors' problem is now. It’s not just that Antetokounmpo had 28 points (on just 18 shots), eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. It was the demoralizing nature of them.
Five of his first seven field goals were dunks. Ten of his first 14 were dunks or layups, most of those on fastbreaks or early in transition.
Technically Antetokounmpo didn’t cost the Raptors Game 1. He was on the floor when the Raptors surged in the second quarter and off the floor – having picked up his fourth foul – late in the third when the Bucks began to separate themselves.
But how the Raptors manage the Milwaukee prodigy in Game 2 may well define the rest of the series.
There are many examples of what not to do, so we’ll cherry pick a few, beginning with the play sparked by rangy Bucks centre Thon Maker’s blocked shot on a DeRozan drive when there was 7:19 on the clock in the third quarter of Game 1. By the time Antetokounmpo laid the ball in at the other end, there was 7:14.
At first glance it was the Bucks’ octopus athleticism at its finest. The block, the sprint out by Antetokounmpo and the finish.
At second glance? The Bucks had five players in the paint when DeRozan’s shot was blocked. The Raptors had three outside the three-point line. After the block Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll took a couple of steps forward before reversing course. Steps to nowhere. That wasted energy makes a huge difference when you have no margin for error.
What to look for in Game 2? Do the Raptors slam on the brakes or take a wide slow turn when transitioning from defence to offence.
“Your first three steps,” emphasized Casey. “We were taking negative steps, going toward the basket instead of getting back and you know what freight train is coming down the road so you gotta turn and sprint back and make sure you have every man available.”
Another Antetokounmpo runout came after a missed corner three by P.J. Tucker in the second quarter.
Tucker was Antetokounmpo's man but as soon as the shot went up, he was releasing. The Bucks secured the rebound and in a flash pushed it ahead to Antetokounmpo for the score. Cory Joseph and Lowry were too slow to get back.
What to look for in Game 2?
How quickly the Raptors on the weak side of the floor (opposite the ball) rotate back into a defensive position. Transition baskets are so valuable in the NBA that most teams don’t even want their perimeter players crashing the offensive boards and the Raptors are no exception. Even before the shot goes up they need to get bodies back to take away Antetokounmpo's runway.
But when you’re seven feet, quick and a great ball-handler, you’re an issue in the half court as well.
There was a play at roughly the 6:25 mark of the second quarter when Antetokounmpo got help from a screen on Carroll and squared to attack the basket.
Serge Ibaka met him outside the paint and kept a body on Antetokounmpo, but the Greek prodigy kept pounding toward the rim before reaching up and dunking over Ibaka, one of the NBA’s premier shot-blockers and one of the few players in the league even remotely in his wheelhouse, athletically.
Just a superstar doing superstar things, right?
Not from Ibaka’s point of view.
“I remember that play. A guy like him, when you switch you have to be up [up the floor, further from the basket]. I was down,” he said. “Those kind of plays we have to do a better job, like, myself, when we switch, I have to be up and then get back. On the switch you go up first and then you back up and you’re ready to play one-on-one.”
What to look for in Game 2?
As the Bucks use screens to give Antetokounmpo some room to work, how aggressive are the Raptors being when the second defender comes over to help? Are they pressing into him, taking away his space? Or are they leaving a big gap, giving him time to build speed and make posters out of help defenders?
Stopping an emerging talent of Antetokounmpo's calibre is a tall order, potentially impossible.
But for the Raptors to make an impact in Game 2 they need slow him down. They need to be mindful of every detail knowing that the slightest slip is more opportunity than he needs to make a play almost no one else could.
They need to recognize that they are in a battle with an athlete who is well on his way to becoming basketball’s next great player.
They just need to make sure he doesn’t get all the way there in the next 10 days.