There are few phrases more worrisome to an NBA fan than when “knee soreness” is written in the same sentence as his or her star player. So when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name popped up on the injury report and missed the team’s New Year’s Day game against the Washington Wizards, that chill felt in Milwaukee wasn’t the frigid winds blowing off Lake Michigan.
The Greek Freak is right where he’s been the last six seasons – smack dab in the middle of the MVP conversation. Giannis is averaging 32.1 points on 53.3-percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
In the two games before sitting out, he had become just the third player in NBA history to post back-to-back games of at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and five assists. The other two? Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. No Giannis means no chance for the Bucks title hopes.
“It’s a great compliment to be around those guys,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “I just want to win games so I just tried to go out there and do whatever I can to push myself to the limit.”
Therein lies the Giannis quandary. He pushes himself to the limit every time he takes the court. Think about it: Has anyone ever seen Giannis not give maximum effort on every play of every game on both ends of the court?
In four of the previous six games, he hit the 40-point mark. He also had five blocks in the six games and grabbed at least 10 boards in 5-of-6, capped by the back-to-back 40-point, 20-rebound sensations.
There is no player in the league who goes from the foul line to the rim like the Greek Freak. His 6-foot-11, 242-pound frame seems to uncoil in strength and grace as he holds the ball with one hand and extends toward the rim.
“It’s what we’ve been talking about,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. His force, his determination, his will, attacking, attacking, attacking … it’s what he’s built for.”
No player, however, can play with that commitment and ferocity without it taking a toll.
This is not the first time knee soreness has plagued the two-time league MVP. The most recent flareup was in the summer when Giannis was playing with the Greek national team. An MRI did not find any structural damage and there’s nothing to suggest that a night off and some load management won’t alleviate the soreness.
But that might not prevent even the calmest Bucks fan from experiencing some anxiety. No team is more dependent on it’s a superstar than Milwaukee is on Giannis. He is to the Bucks what Luka Doncic is to the Mavericks and Nikola Jokic is to the Nuggets. Any extended absents by those players would doom their teams.
Despite Giannis’s extraordinary play, the Bucks had lost 5-of-6. Jrue Holiday has missed time with non-COVID illness and Khris Middleton also is experiencing knee soreness. Despite the skid, the Bucks were just 2.5 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
With Giannis’s force, determination and will, there’s no reason to believe the Bucks won’t be in contention to win the East. And if he keeps playing at his current level, the Greek Freak could win his third MVP honor (2019, 2020).
“I’m proud of this team,” Giannis told reporters. “As a leader I just try to do whatever I can, try to push myself to the limit. I just want to win games. Feels way better when you’re able to win and go home and sleep.”
Feels even better if the knee soreness subsides.