The Giannis Era on hold after running into ‘The Raptors Wall’


Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) takes a moment on the court in the last seconds of second half NBA Eastern Conference finals action against the Toronto Raptors, in Toronto on Saturday, May 25, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

It was before he pulled off a move born out either of disappointment, anger or petulance. The exit after the exit, as it were. But for now, the Milwaukee Bucks‘ Giannis Antetokounmpo leaned forward and stared off into the distance, cheek on hand as Khris Middleton answered a question.

We have seen this so, so many times in this general area of the Scotiabank Arena. Saw it many times as well when it was called the Air Canada Centre. But far too often it was somebody from the home team doing it. It was Kyle or DeMar most of the time because it was part of the gig when you were the twin faces of the Toronto Raptors. You slowly ascend the podium in the interview room and answer questions after a loss – in front of a room that gets fuller with each passing round, and increasingly with more of the names that help generate much of the discussion around your league. It’s the same after a win, but on those occasions it’s not so much of a burden.

But M.J. did this after wins and losses and, yes, even eliminations. So did Kobe and Shaq and LeBron still does it and even Kevin Durant does, too. Go through all of the names and they’ve done it. You take your turn. You answer the tap on the shoulder.

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Antetokounmpo hadn’t bothered to show up after all of his teams previous losses, preferring to answer questions in the locker room – at times in a manner that hinted of begrudging. A half-measure, really, for a player who is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. Antetokounmpo was going home a loser Saturday night after his first trip to the Conference Finals, the opportunity presented by LeBron James’ departure from the East Conference not realized. The first East Final Post-LeBron would, alas, not be the first Finals of the Giannis Era. And while there were several reasons for it, in the end, all Giannis must have been left with was the realization that something his head coach had said just a few minutes earlier was all too true.

“He’s very, very close to exactly what we need him to do,” said Mike Budenholzer.

But not there, right? Truth is, this was more a series in which Kawhi Leonard won it for the Raptors than it was one in which Antetokounmpo lost for the Bucks. But that might not be how it looks when a glance at the scoresheet Saturday reveals Antetokounmpo managed just three points in 10:30 of play in the fourth quarter; when social and national media will be filled with the image of Leonard throwing down over top of him to make the score 87-79 with 6:46 left and when one of the pressing questions of his coach afterward was whether he second-guessed his decision to start the fourth quarter with Antetokounmpo on the bench. It was just 90 seconds of rest – 90 – but in that time the Raptors, without Leonard on the floor – finally tied the game at 78-78.

“Obviously, I want to be out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to play. I love playing. But I trust my coach. I’ve trusted my coach the whole year – the way he’s been putting me into the game, the way he’s taken me out of the game and making me rest and putting me back in in the right moments.

“And that’s just what I’ve got to do right now. You cannot just start making up things or you cannot just go and tell him: “Put me back in.” Especially in a game like this.

“It’s all about trust,” Antentokounmpo said, continuing. “You can never lose the trust, especially in a game like Game 6 tonight.”

Antetokounmpo finished with 21 points on 7-of-18 from the field, including 2-for-5 from three-point range. He was the only Bucks starter to finish on the plus side of the ledger at plus-three. Yet a recurring theme of the series was his tendency at times to disappear, either running into what the TNT boys referred to as “the Raptors wall,” or strangely passing off to others in a manner that suggested a lack of aggressiveness whenever the team lost. On the flip-side, it’s true that as is so often the case, he was credited with being unselfish when his team won.

“I thought he was fabulous,” Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo. “I think the one game, Game 3, when you look at the film and you have conversations with (him), that was maybe the only game where I think the aggressiveness and the force that he needs to play with … there were enough situations where we felt like he could have been more aggressive or forceful.

“But five out of six games? And even that one he was very good. I’m just being critical of Giannis and trying to push him.

“Giannis will get better,” said Budenholzer. “It’s the easy narrative that this is part of Giannis’ stepping … but I think the thing that makes him unique and exciting is that we think he will get better. Some of the great ones at 24 are the same at 30 and 32 and so on. Giannis has a lot of room to go.”

If he wants, Antetokounmpo can look around and find myriad examples of players who have been where he is this morning. Hell, he’s just left a city – Toronto – whose entire fan-base has been through it all repeatedly. The last question of the night would be from a reporter who has been with the team all year and about the value of experience. At that point, Antetokounmpo got up and exited the podium – it was being fed live around the world – leaving a surprised Middleton left to answer.

In their previous series win, over the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors had reduced Joel Embiid to tears. Social media suggested Antetokounmpo’s hasty departure might have had something to do with the reporter dropping an on-line article as soon as the Bucks were eliminated that started the off-season dialogue around whether Antetokounmpo was really destined to stay with the Bucks, or may soon become part of the NBA’s game of superstar musical chairs.

Oh how times have changed: the Raptors beating an opponent and forcing serious internal examination. The Raptors, a stepping stone not to a title but rather to the development of another player who has plenty of time to lay claim to an era of his own.

Just not yet.

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