2020 Playoffs | East Semifinals: (1) Bucks vs. (5) Heat

With Bucks down 3-0, scrutiny falls on Giannis Antetokounmpo

Reigning Kia MVP's struggles lead to questions about his ability to lead a team to the promised land

ORLANDO, Fla. — He will sign the richest contract in the history of American professional sports by next summer — if he chooses to do so. He will also, in all likelihood, win his second straight Kia MVP award in a few weeks.

And if you fell from another planet and started watching this second-round playoff series between the Bucks and Heat, you’d assume this is a tale about Jimmy Butler.

>> Game 2: Heat go for the sweep Sunday (3:30 ET, ABC)

But no, no. This is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has everything a superstar wants, and suddenly a few things he doesn’t: Questions about his ability to lead a team to the promised land.

Those conversations are being amplified here on the eve of a potential sweep, with Butler and the Heat bringing the brooms instead of Giannis and the team with the NBA’s best record. Giannis is down alarmingly in the second round to a lower seed, and in this type of situation, all eyes are seared in the direction of the player who earns all the goodies.

Should the Heat finish him off — and no team in NBA history has rallied from 3-0 in a best-of-seven — Giannis will deal with a level of scrutiny like none before in his otherwise stunning NBA career. His flaws are being magnified and exploited right now and his trend of going silent in the fourth-quarter stretch in this series will solidify if it hasn’t already.

He might find that shaking a reputation can be a lot harder than shaking a few defenders on his way to the hoop.

Mainly, he’ll need to go back to the lab this offseason and fine-tune his skills, starting with his outside shooting. That part of his game still lags, and although Giannis has gained more confidence in that shot over the last year, it has failed spectacularly against Miami, where he’s 2-for-13. The Heat, therefore, are giving Giannis all the room he wants on the perimeter, leaving him open, daring him to aim from 20 feet, watching him misfire.

He’s most dangerous when he runs downhill to the basket, a 6-foot-10 forward who covers the space between midcourt and the rim in roughly four gallops, collecting fouls and breaking spirits along the way. But again: When your jumper isn’t being respected, you start seeing layers of defenders standing in the paint and waiting and often drawing offensive fouls.

Or, in the case of ace defenders Butler and Bam Adebayo, you get stripped of the ball en route.

Problem is, Giannis tweaked his ankle midway through Game 3 and had to endure the remainder of the game operating at less than 100%. With only one day’s rest between games here at Disney, there’s not ample recovery time; the Bucks called off Saturday’s practice.

There’s also another issue at stake: Giannis’ level of bloodthirstiness. This can only be tested in the postseason, when the stakes are high and demands on superstars are heavy. This cold-hearted approach is very apparent in the eyes, demeanor and take-charge-ness of Butler, who like the majority of NBA players has far less physical ability than Giannis. Milwaukee searched for leadership in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and found none, being outscored by 27 points in the period.

Giannis is still waiting to deliver a signature moment in this series. He missed 14-of-21 shots in Game 3 with three turnovers, far from the level he enjoyed in a season that saw him average almost 30 and 14 and win Kia Defensive Player of the Year.

“I am in a good place,” Giannis insisted. “Obviously, if there is a team that can come back against a team from 3-0, and beat them, it can be us.

The plight that the Bucks find themselves in can also be taken another way, that perhaps Giannis doesn’t have the right mix of players around him. This song and verse has been heard before. Is Khris Middleton a true and solid deputy to Giannis? Does Eric Bledsoe have the chops to match up with the league’s other floor leaders at point guard? What happens if the Bucks fail to hit open 3-pointers and do they have the personnel for that or an emergency plan other than throw the ball to Giannis.

Obviously, if there is a team that can come back against a team from 3-0, and beat them, it can be us.”

— Giannis Antetokounmpo

“I believe in my teammates, I trust my teammates, I love my teammates and I want my teammates to be confident,” Giannis said. “We can do it.”

Also: Why isn’t Giannis playing more than 33-34 minutes a night, especially here in the postseason where it’s all-hands-on-deck?

These are nervous times in Milwaukee because the fate of the franchise rests with Giannis. No other team is more dependent on a superstar, both on and off the court, than the Bucks are with Giannis. He helped build a downtown arena with all the bells and whistles, made the Bucks a title contender, put a small-market town on the basketball map and influenced many personnel decisions.

Didn’t the Bucks give Middleton an astonishing contract extension — he’ll make $40 million in 2023-24 alone, rich for a No. 2 option guy — partly to show Giannis how committed they are? Same for Bledsoe, who’ll make $19 million in his final year? And what about when Giannis’ deal comes up next summer, when almost every team in the NBA will clear salary cap room in what will be the next great free-agent chase? How damaging would that be for the Bucks if Giannis fails to win a ring between then and now and decides he’d have a better chance elsewhere?

That’s the elephant in the room, because the franchise is hypersensitive about Giannis and his options next summer. The Bucks do have the ace card, of course. They can, and will, offer him a supermax extension that’ll be more than any other team can offer. And if Giannis puts that level of generational wealth above everything else, then it’ll be an easy decision.

Still, others have rejected that money, namely Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, so there’s precedent. And anyway, this isn’t Giannis’ first big contract; it’s his second. He’s already wealthy.

All of that, and more, creeps into the picture for Giannis and the Bucks in the event of a second-round ouster and they can’t return to the conference finals, much less the NBA Finals.

The atmosphere at this NBA campus does favor a team trying to rally. There’s no home-court advantage of disadvantage, and besides, Milwaukee hasn’t dropped four straight all season.

“First time in the history playing in a bubble, first time in history a team can come back from down 3-0,” said guard George Hill.

This is supposed to be his year and Milwaukee’s year, the second time they entered the playoffs with the league’s best record and the MVP. They were the dominant player and team during the regular season. They were the force that held up the playoffs for a few days to better reflect on social injustice. They came into the playoffs as the top seed and strong favorite against Butler and the upstart Heat.

If Giannis and the Bucks exit meekly and quietly, what did it all mean?

And: Where is this all headed?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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