Giannis Antetokounmpo's Legend Just Beginning and Thursday NBA Playoff Takeaways

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 27, 2018

Giannis Antetokounmpo's Legend Just Beginning and Thursday NBA Playoff Takeaways

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    And the Milwaukee Bucks go marching on. 

    Not to the second round for a matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, but to a Game 7 on Saturday night that will decide this intensely competitive series against the Boston Celtics. They staved off elimination with a 97-86 victory in Game 6 that featured numerous late charges from their foes, but these deer aren't out of the woods yet. 

    If they're to upset the injury-riddled C's, they'll likely need another performance similar to the one Giannis Antetokounmpo just submitted. This might've been the most significant game of his young career, and he didn't disappoint. 

    Not even close. 

    With 31 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, 13-of-23 shooting from the field and a 5-of-8 success rate from the stripe, the Greek Freak left little doubt he was the best player on the court. His showing was an inspired one, featuring countless step-backs to create space in the paint when he wasn't putting his Eurostepping proclivities on full display. 

    But just wait, Giannis. The pressure cooker is about to get turned all the way up. 

This Is What Superstars Are Made Of

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    Thursday night was the biggest game of Antetokounmpo's career. Saturday night is going to be even bigger.

    There's nothing quite like the intensity of a postseason affair...especially when you're suiting up in Game 7 on the road. The Boston Garden will be rocking in a valiant attempt to will the Celtics to the second round, and the pressure will be firmly on this positionless superstar's shoulders as he tries to live up to the challenge. 

    During Game 5, Antetokounmpo served as a bystander far too frequently. He only attempted 10 field goals during the loss—his third-fewest tally of the 2017-18 campaign—and instead deferred to his less talented teammates. But that narrative flipped 180 degrees two nights later as the 23-year-old dictated the action from start to finish. 

    Even when Boston defended him perfectly for the entirety of the shot clock, he used his lanky limbs to create space and get off clean looks. When his foes made mistakes, he capitalized on them en route to a 13-of-23 showing that starred all the fire and fury we were missing during the previous game. Antetokounmpo was active on the glass. He demanded the ball on the interior and relentlessly attacked the hoop whenever he drew a mismatch. 

    And despite the takeover instincts, he rarely made mistakes. In fact, he joined a list of veritable legends as one of only 17 players in league history with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a postseason showing that featured exactly zero turnovers. 

    This is what you want from a superstar. Those guys are supposed to show up when the lights are brightest. They're the ones who thrive when their teams need them most—or whatever cliche you'd like to use that captures the knee-knocking intensity of these late-series postseason moments. 

    Antetokounmpo's regular-season excellence has already vaulted him into the realm of true stars. Now it's time for him to solidify that status, and he started that process admirably by staving off elimination in the first of two win-or-go-home contests. 

Boston's Youngsters Keep Impressing

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    Though the youthful trio wasn't enough to close out the series and advance to a second-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics have to be pleased that Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum didn't shrink in the biggest moments. Each played well in different facets of the game, continuing to put the long-term upside of this franchise on full display. 

    Ultimately, the C's are playing with house money in the 2018 playoffs. Who would hold a first-round defeat against them after Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving were lost for the year, especially when those absences are also paired with injuries to Daniel Theis and—for the first four games of this clash—Marcus Smart? 

    Now, irrespective of Saturday night's unwelcome outcome, they can be even more confident in their future. 

    Brown's shooting stroke went missing for lengthy portions of Game 6, but he still made a few timely cuts during a second-half run and wound up with 14 points and five rebounds. As pointed out by RealGM's Dave DuFour on Twitter, "Jaylen's awareness as a cutter is really impressive for a second year player. He's consistently making good reads."

    It's an even better sign that a young wing didn't let his shooting struggles prevent him from consistently hustling and playing his physical brand of defense. Brown already understands how he can make a positive impact regardless of whether the shots are falling. 

    Ditto for Rozier, who similarly overcame a poor night from the field by inserting himself in other areas of the game. He continued to pester (and get in the head of) Eric Bledsoe when he wasn't making sound decisions as a passer or crashing the boards. 

    And yet, Tatum might be the most impressive of the bunch. 

    His shot-making skills were on full display during the second half as he routinely knocked down big jumpers to regain some of the game's momentum. This kind of play is flat-out special. Better still, he proved capable of functioning as an off-the-dribble creator by attacking the basket and drawing whistles.

    Not every loss has a silver lining. But for Beantown, this one surely did. 

Bucks' Drought

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    The Milwaukee Bucks haven't been forced into enduring one of the NBA's longest postseason droughts at any point in their recent history. In fact, they haven't gone more than three years sans a playoff appearance during the current millennium. 

    They have, however, failed to win even a single playoff series during the last 17 years. No organization can match that ignominious feat, though another unfortunate quartet—none of whom can change the sad reality in 2018—joins them with stretches of at least 10 campaigns free of series victories:

    1. Milwaukee Bucks: last postseason series win in 2001 
    2. Charlotte Hornets: last postseason series win in 2002
    3. Minnesota Timberwolves: last postseason series win in 2004
    4. Sacramento Kings: last postseason series win in 2004
    5. Detroit Pistons: last postseason series win in 2008

    But let's put that into further perspective. 

    During the Bucks' 2001 run, they toppled the Orlando Magic in the opening round before taking down the Hornets and earning a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals. They lost to Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of that penultimate series and started Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell, Ervin Johnson, Ray Allen and Darvin Ham during the final contest. 

    None of those men are still playing in the NBA. Two of them are assistant coaches—Cassell with the Los Angeles Clippers and Ham with the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson even gets to watch his son suit up for the Indiana Pacers. 

    It's been that long. 

    The Bucks have a chance to change that, though. All it takes is one more victory. 

Engaged Jabari Parker Is Good Jabari Parker

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Apparently, Jabari Parker just needed to flip the aggression switch. 

    The Duke product played miserable basketball during the early portion of this first-round series. He looked like a traffic cone on the defensive end, couldn't find the bottom of the net with his shooting stroke and labored his way up and down the court before finding himself firmly planted on the pine next to interim head coach Joe Prunty. 

    But Parker handled his poor play positively. Rather than let his diminished production and reduced minutes spiral out of control, he's gotten back to what made him special: takeover scoring abilities that allow him to exploit matchups. 

    Of course, this isn't a new development from Game 6. Parker turned a corner in the third contest of this matchup with the C's, and he hasn't looked back. After averaging 16.7 points and 6.7 boards during the last three outings, he recorded nine points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a steal Thursday night while shooting 4-of-10 from the field. 

    No longer compelled to force the issue on what few touches he received, the combo forward was comfortable swinging the ball around in the half-court set to seek out the right shots. He routinely pulled down defensive rebounds and pushed the pace in transition before either finishing the play or finding an open teammate. And, as the Step Back's Wes Goldberg tweeted, "Jabari Parker playing defense for the last three games has been among the bigger surprises of round 1."

    This doesn't mean Parker has an extended future in Brewtown. He remains a restricted free agent this offseason, and it's highly probable he'll either seek a bigger role or his current team won't want to match whatever offer sheet he signs. 

    And that's fine. He doesn't have to stay in the same place throughout his career. For now, he can just take solace in the fact that he's no longer bottoming out and is instead starting to become a productive figure at the most opportune time. 

Impact of a Healthy Marcus Smart

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    Could this series have unfolded in a different fashion if Marcus Smart had never injured his thumb and been healthy for each of the first six games? 

    It most likely would have. The guard was rusty in his second outing back, but you can already see the flashes of impact. His intense defensive effort hasn't gone anywhere, and it allowed him to wreak havoc throughout the contest, tying up members of the Bucks and forcing them into turnovers. 

    Smart's line wasn't particularly impressive during his series debut, as he recorded nine points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal, three blocks and five turnovers while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in Game 5. Two nights later, he threw up similarly nondescript counting stats: six points, two rebounds, one assist and one turnover while going 2-of-9. 

    But this backcourt member has never been about the box score. His impact shows up in all the nonquantifiable ways—his energy in chasing after 50/50 plays, the slight moment of hesitation he evokes from his assignments, the willingness to fire away from the perimeter in late-clock scenarios, the defensive acumen that forces passes rather than shots and so much more. That's why his shooting numbers and advanced metrics often betray his true worth. 

    Except that wasn't the case Thursday night, as the Bucks outscored Boston by 14 points while Smart was on the floor. 

    Game 7 could be different, and that'll be great news for a Celtics squad that needs a win on its parqueted home floor. Smart should be more eased into the rotation by then, ready to play with unique lineup combinations upon which head coach Brad Stevens has to rely after his troops have suffered so many injuries. And if he can help swing the net rating by 4.7 points per 100 possessions like he did throughout the regular season, that'll be an undeniable positive for the East's No. 2 seed. 

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.comNBA Math or and are current heading into games on April 26.