MILWAUKEE -- The sight of Giannis Antetokounmpo launching and hitting all those 3-pointers Thursday night against the Lakers no doubt meant different things to different witnesses.
Bucks fans at Fiserv Forum were giddy seeing their team beat LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest from the West’s best in one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent NBA history.
Millions watching on TV likely have some mix of surprise and disbelief. C’mon, this wasn’t how Antetokounmpo won his 2019 Kia Most Valuable Player Award. This wasn’t the relentless, Euro-stepping rim wrecker who needed marksmen spread around the perimeter of Milwaukee’s offense to create openings for him. Antetokounmpo was -- well, whaddaya know -- opening his own seams in the Lakers’ defense.
Meanwhile, for those who make their livings working for one of the league’s other 29 teams, the sight of “The Greek Freak” hoisting eight and making a career-high five 3s in his team’s 111-104 victory surely had darker, more troubling undertones. As in: Fine, now what do we do to stop this guy?
Adding a legitimate jump shot to his offensive repertoire and some modern-NBA range to it has been the last frontier for Antetokounmpo’s versatile game. Forcing -- even inviting -- him to shoot from the outside was one of the few safe spaces left for defenses.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks didn’t run from it, either, openly acknowledging that the 6-foot-11 positionless All-Star was spending long hours in the gym working on this last remaining flaw. It was starting to look like a race between him and Milwaukee’s opponents, to see if they could beat and eliminate the Bucks before Antetokounmpo found his fix.
Brrrrrrrrp! Time’s up. These things are part of his game now.
“I think the most important thing is try to stay humble,” Antetokounmpo said later. “When you win MVP and you win 60 games, it’s hard. Like you feel, ‘OK, what else?’
“But I’m realizing and my family is realizing, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I wasn’t [a sure thing] like LeBron was. … I’m just happy that I’m here. I’m going through the process. I’m getting better, shooting better for my team. That’s what gives me joy.”
Antetokounmpo sank one 3-pointer in the first quarter Thursday, one in the second and two more in the third. Then, in the fourth, he drained a statement 3-pointer from 28 feet to keep Milwaukee comfortably ahead, 98-84, in a game they’d earlier led by 21 points.
Miss or make, it’s all about the confidence and having the mindset to take that shot.”
That one came with Davis adrift, a couple of strides away, too far to contest the attempt, length against length.
“I was just coming down, hoping that he’d be like two steps back,” Antetokounmpo said, sounding like an old veteran sniper. “I wanted to pull up for a 3. It was a momentum play. Even though I was in foul trouble, I just wanted to be aggressive.
“That’s what I wanted. But sometimes you want to shoot a three or you want to drive it, but the defender does something different and you’ve got to adjust. But he was far back, so I was able to pull up.”
There was all sorts of magnificence on display in what probably got mentioned a dozen times as a possible Finals preview. James was the most forceful personality on the floor as usual, and mere days before his 35th birthday filled the boxes -- 21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists -- for his seventh triple-double of the season.
Davis scored 28 of his 36 points after halftime, earned his way to the foul line for 17 attempts and had 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
And then there was Wesley Matthews, the Bucks’ 33-year-old wing tasked with guarding James. As good as the Lakers star’s numbers were, imagine how bloated they might have gotten had Matthews not pestered so professionally.
“He did an absolutely amazing job on LeBron, just making it tough,” Antetokounmpo said. “Playing back, playing to touch up, making him make plays, making him drive the ball, then going under, then going over. He was making him guess the whole night. That was unbelievable. I’m so happy to have a guy like Wes who seems he can guard LeBron James for 48 minutes.”
While Antetokounmpo gushed over Matthews, others gushed over Antetokounmpo’s growing prowess and confidence as a shooter. One with sufficient credentials to judge was Kyle Korver, one of the NBA’s best at 3-balls.
Leave it to Korver to be most impressed by a 3-pointer that his MVP teammate never even shot.
“He had a good moment tonight,” Korver said, “where he faked a three and they jumped, so he drove and drew the foul. That means [opponents] are watching. There were ones that were contested, where they were getting out to him. Made him shoot them higher too.”
Through Antetokounmpo’s first five seasons, he shot a shaky 28.4 percent from the arc. And through the first three months of 2018-19, as the rest of his MVP game flourished, he was sputtering along 12-of-78 (15.3 percent).
But 2019 calendar has been different. He hit 32 percent after the first of the year last season. Now, after his flurry Thursday, Antetokounmpo has made 49 of 145 (33.8 percent) through the Bucks’ first 29 games this season. Why, the Wall Street Journal even did a story on his downtown development project.
Credit his confidence, Korver said. “You see it in when he takes the shot. The time and the score of the game. It shows in the type of shots he’s taking. There are certain threes you can see, he’s got a certain rhythm mechanically, he has certain spots and he feels really good about them.”
Oh, Antetokounmpo still has attempts where he looks like a lawn chair unfolding on a windy day. But his form has gotten better, from countless hours drilling with Bucks shooting coach Ben Sullivan or, often, in a gym that’s otherwise empty besides himself and a rebounder.
“Miss or make,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s all about the confidence and having the mindset to take that shot.”
One MVP’s mindset might be a whole league’s new headache.
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