Three-point shooting seems muscular now. When the Warriors won their first title in 2015, the You Can’t Win Shooting Jumpers era expired, though Daryl Morey and assorted numbers dorks had been telling us it was dead for years, and that long-ranging was the future. Looking at the league in 2021, you can’t say they were wrong. In 2010-11, the Magic led the league in three-point attempts with 25.6 per game. That would have put them dead last for the 2020-21 season, in which the Jazz took 43 triples per game. Guards who came into the league about a decade ago as very good shooters—your Kyrie Irvings, your Dame Lillards—have built themselves into prolific and proficient marksman with range out to 30 feet and lots of 19- and 20-year-old prospects already have nascent behind-the-line stepback games, a proclivity for pulling up from a couple strides over halfcourt when the spirit moves them. It’s a little bit concerning if your center can’t spot up from deep. Ben Simmons is seen as a coward because he won’t pull the trigger from back there. The Lakers won the title last year and the only real doubts people expressed in the middle of their run was whether or not they had quite enough shooting. It was LeBron and A.D. against a towering wave of math.
One of the great things about a seven-game series is that it’s long enough for trends to take hold—i.e. the better team usually wins—but not so long that you can count on the averages to save you. When the Rockets kept bombing away from deep, missing 27 triples in a row against the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, they were playing as if the contest was going to last a thousand minutes. You go back to the tape or scroll through the play-by-play and it’s astounding how many consecutive trips down the floor they step into their regular Rockets-y shots: James Harden isos from three, kickouts to corner threes, quick threes off of offensive rebounds. There’s something to be said for self-confidence, believing in your methods, but both at the time and in hindsight it’s pretty obvious they should have switched something up. The quantitative analysis merely seems like it’s always right. There are moments to break from it. When you’ve bricked a dozen-plus of what you’ve been told are the most efficient shots on the floor, for instance.
The Bucks aren’t zealots about threes, but they take their fair share—eighth in the league in attempts, this season—and most of their rotation players are reliable from distance. Crucially, their best player is not. Giannis should probably never shoot threes, but it’s 2021 and so he does, at a horrendous percentage. Because three-point shooting seems muscular now. Except, you know what is actually muscular? Taking it to the rack. Giannis is awesome at this. So awesome that the most common defensive strategy used against him, when he has the ball at the top of the arc, is to put three bodies near the foul line. Coaches would tell their guys to link arms, if that was legal, to keep the Greek Freak from getting downhill. Sometimes he gets there anyway, but when he’s 30 feet from the basket, at least you’ve got a shot. In the high post, your odds of stopping him are slimmer. Close-in on the baseline or block, it’s basically a lost cause. He’s long and strong and sudden, his footwork is as sharp as it’s ever been, and there’s no fear in him anymore. He knows what he needs to do.
Game 3 was close for a while. Not perilously tight, exactly, but in the balance, a few Suns stops and Chris Paul mid-rangers away from being stolen away from the Bucks. A 15-point halftime lead dwindled to 11, then eight, and then four. Milwaukee hit some threes—see? they’re never not important—and carved out some breathing room. And then when Giannis wanted to make sure the tilt was finished, he attacked the tin. It wasn’t complicated. He called for the ball and screamed basket-ward. He grabbed offensive boards and went right back up with them. All the Suns could do was hack him and hope he missed his free throws, which he mostly didn’t. The Milwaukee lead bloomed.
It was a visceral, dominating performance. There’s an inevitability to a Steph Curry game, when he throttles into automatic mode. He goes over the defense. He renders the thicket of limbs and muscle inside the arc irrelevant. It’s a neat trick, what he and other players like him do. It’s clever. Giannis, when he’s really cooking, satisfies our appetite for violence. Opponents hang on his back and it doesn’t matter. They put themselves in his path and he muscles them out of the way. He goes through, and when he goes over, he’s climbing above the heads of other forwards and centers, reaching past their ears and flailing arms to lay the ball in. Impeccable shooting is merely a metaphor for what Giannis literally does. He beats dudes up. His inevitability is physical.
Whether that’s enough to get the Bucks through three more wins, it is at least enough to give us a series. They’ll need shooting at some point, everybody does, it’s 2021. A Khris Middleton 38-pointer, a random good luck night when Brook Lopez goes 5-for-6 from the corner. But there’s not a sturdier foundation upon which to wring your hands and hope than Giannis Antetokounmpo when he’s determined to tear the lane in two.