‘Unstoppable’ Giannis makes things look easy, but he knows it isn’t

The Athletic

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WASHINGTON — After watching him make 19 of his first 21 shots, the Washington Wizards finally forced Giannis Antetokounmpo into the fourth quarter with just over a minute and a half left in Monday’s game.

It didn’t matter much, though, as Antetokounmpo followed a missed fadeaway jumper down the right wing, beat Daniel Gafford for the rebound, and then hit a layup to close out the night.

Antetokounmpo’s stat line read 42 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists as the final buzzer sounded and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Wizards 142-129 to collect their fifth straight victory. He finished the night with a 20-of-23 shooting performance. He picked up offensive rebounds and made two of three misses, only to attempt an empty-handed layup that left the new coach with a simple conclusion after the game.

“Unstoppable,” said Adrian Griffin. “Of course he’s unstoppable. And you combine that with the unique talent that we have, it really frees him up to do what he does best. You have to send a lot of bodies to him, and that leaves some pretty good shooters open. Man, he was in the rhythm tonight. He is unstoppable. You can’t stop him.

There are a number of impressive statistical possibilities surrounding Monday’s performance, but perhaps the most surprising is that Antetokounmpo has done this before. Monday’s game was the sixth time in Antetokounmpo’s career that he scored at least 40 points on 80 percent shooting or better. According to Basketball-Reference’s Stathead tool, 72 players in NBA history have recorded such a stat line. Dozens have done it more than once, and only two players, Wilt Chamberlain and Adrian Dantley, have done it more (seven) than Antetokounmpo’s six games over the past six seasons.

Most people in the Bucks’ locker room have seen one of Antetokounmpo’s performances, so their reactions are a little muted this time. But those enjoying the experience for the first time will really enjoy the show.

“I think when you’ve got a big guy who moves well and is long, fast, that’s a tough cover. You either kill him or he’s going to go to the rim,” Bucks point guard Damian Lillard said after posting 22 points and seven rebounds in the win. “I think sometimes defenses don’t expect him to cover the field as much as he does. I think some guys think they’re in a good spot, and then it’s just long and it’s right on the edge.

“Like a Greek freak? He’s a coward. Things you can’t do. So 20-for-23, I think the quality of shooting he brings, he’s at the basket and there’s nothing you can do very often, so it’s amazing. Twenty of 23 is crazy. It’s crazy.”

When asked after the game about his performance and finding a way to make 20-of-23 shots, Antetokounmpo acknowledged the variety of scoring opportunities presented.

“I’m just trying to play random basketball,” Antetokounmpo said. “He tried to be in a lot of positions. Left block. Right block. Transition. Run to the rim. Off the dribble. Nail. Roll. Pop. Just play random basketball. I think it’s hard to press them and build the wall, protect them.

“There will be days when it works and days when it doesn’t. Today was the day I was able to get a few buckets, and hopefully there will be more games like this. But at the end of the day, I have to keep playing, being aggressive, trying to make the right play with my teammates. Try to do whatever I can to help them win.”

The Wizards are just 2-11 after Monday’s loss and are one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, so there were plenty of positives for Antetokounmpo. Nine of his 20 shots went in, but none of those were easy in the third quarter, as Antetokounmpo routinely had to finish in traffic.

With such explosive scoring nights becoming somewhat commonplace for the two-time NBA MVP over the past six seasons, a reporter asked Antetokounmpo if he had it easy on a big night.

“It’s not easy,” Antetokounmpo said. “I wish it was easier. You know, I wish it was easier. I wish I could go in every game and get 42, you know? But no, no. It’s hard. You have to work really hard to get comfortable, to get into a rhythm, to get into your position, to work for yourself, to work for your teammates. It’s tough, but I think I’ve worked really hard to take care of my body, stay healthy and be able to play 30-plus minutes every night.

“Also, I worked hard to maintain my balance to get to my position even though guys were pushing me. I study film and try to figure out angles, timing where I can drive the ball and be effective in the paint. But it is not easy. I put a lot of hours and a lot of sweat into this to be able to achieve this result. So, yes, thank you. This is a compliment that (someone) thinks is easy, but no, man, it’s not easy.

Even in his attempts at scoring at the rim, Antetokounmpo showed a few new tricks. Twice on Monday he got “split” off the dribble in pick-and-roll coverage from the Wizards, just as he did for this first-half bucket with Pat Connaughton as the screener.

In the third quarter, with the Wizards running at the Bucks and eventually taking the lead in the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo made a beautiful fadeaway jumper that kissed the glass.

Antetokounmpo’s night wasn’t just about results; He also recorded eight assists. And when the Bucs shut down the Wizards, he trusted his teammates and created good looks for them, even as he had the hot hand as a scorer.

First, Antetokounmpo was able to draw multiple defenders in the net to create a wide 3-point look for Lillard.

And then, he used a screen from Brock Lopez (16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks) to Malik Beasley, who added 16 points and five rebounds, on a beautiful no-look pass to an open corner 3.

Monday wasn’t a banner night for the Bucks’ defensive improvement, a fact Griffin wasn’t shy about discussing after the game, but the Bucks had six players score in double figures and shot 58.5 percent from the field as a team, which was more than enough to get past the Wizards. And everything they did on that end of the floor was driven by Antetokounmpo’s focus at the rim.

“I like the way he’s playing right now,” Khris Middleton (18 points, seven assists in 23 minutes) said. “It’s not settling down. But by that I don’t mean he’s not sitting down for a jump shot, it’s just that the defense is taking what he’s giving and putting everything he has, driving, finding the man, taking the middle, his 3 little.

He’s always aware of what’s on the edge, but I think he sees a lot more space now the way we play against Dem, myself there a little bit more and Brook’s spacing and the shooters around him. Teams worry about loading in every way and are trying to be careful about when and how they double-team. So he’s doing a great job of attacking that one-on-one fight as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Now, on a five-game winning streak, the Bucks head to Boston for a matchup with the Celtics on Wednesday that will be a real test of everything they’ve tried to build over the first 14 games.

(Giannis Antetokounmpo photo: Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)