NEW YORK — With the ball at the baseline and some room to operate, the New York Knicks defender really had no chance against Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The player known as the Greek Freak spun around on the baseline to free himself and then went in for an over-the-head backward jam that wowed the crowd at Madison Square Garden, an audience that hasn’t seen many plays like that from the home team.
This was Saturday, another routine 123-102 win for the Bucks, who will visit the 76ers on Christmas Day with the NBA’s best record, 27-4, and the league’s top attraction.
The sculpted 6-foot-11, 240-pound Antetokounmpo is actually playing better than a year ago when he was the NBA’s MVP.
Is there a way that the reigning MVP can also be a candidate for most improved player?
It might sound far-fetched, but this season in slightly fewer minutes, Antetokounmpo is averaging more points and rebounds and taking on even more of a leadership role.
This season he is averaging 31 points and 12.9 rebounds in 31.1 minutes. A year ago, he averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds in 32.8 minutes.
The 25-year-old Antetokounmpo, who was named the NBA’s most improved player in 2016-2017, keeps expanding his game.
Now in his seventh season, he doesn’t even begin to resemble the player who averaged 6.8 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 15th overall in the 2013 NBA draft.
For reference, former Sixers Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter Williams were selected ahead of him in that draft, No. 6 and No. 11, respectively.
Then again, plenty of other teams missed out on Antetokounmpo.
He might have the longest steps in the NBA and it usually takes only two of them to get from the top of the key to the basket.
There is no secret to his success. Despite already being a three-time All-Star, Antetokounmpo is known as much for his work ethic as his flashy moves.
“I think you hear things about who he is as a person and you see it up close and you realize the game is the most important thing to him,” said Bucks forward Kyle Korver, who chose Milwaukee over the Sixers as free agent this year. “He loves basketball, he loves working hard, he believes he has to work to get better.”
His career continued at an upward trajectory since that difficult rookie season. He has increased his scoring average in each NBA season.
This year he has added a key intangible.
“I love his leadership,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Antetokounmpo said in the past he had preferred to lead by example, but he realized more was needed from him in that department.
“I think going into the offseason obviously you are growing up and come back and see the team and realize this is your team and guys want to hear your voice,” Antetokounmpo said after Saturday’s win. “You don’t only lead on the court, but off the court also. I have just tried to be more vocal.”
Not only is Antetokounmpo lethal on offense, he was named to the All-NBA defensive first team a year ago. He has the ability to guard players of all sizes and positions.
“He is super athletic, plays with a high motor, he can handle the ball, shoot the ball, you are talking about a complete player,” said Jimmy Butler, before his Miami Heat team beat the Sixers last week. “He gets to the rim at will, gets everybody involved and is an incredible defender, too.”
In the past, Sixers power forward Mike Scott has had to defend Antetokounmpo. He says there are two words that describe a defender’s feelings when facing the herculean task of attempting to slow him down.
“Good luck,” Scott said. “It usually ends in a foul.”
Scott says it’s almost a helpless cause defending him.
“There isn’t much that I can personally do with him,” Scott said.
Sixers forward-center Al Horford has also guarded Antetokounmpo in the past, and he said the only way to even slow him down is through a collective effort.
“In a one-on-one matchup, it has gotten to the point where he is almost too skilled,” Horford said. “There has to be a team awareness of him because he is so good at getting to the basket.”
Antetokounmpo’s one weakness in the past has been his perimeter game. Last year he shot 25.6 percent from three-point range. This season he has improved, shooting 34.2 percent. In last week’s 111-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, he hit five of eight three-point attempts.
“I have never seen a guy that is 6-11 or whatever his height, put the ball on the floor and drive the way he does,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose team snapped the Bucks’ 18-game winning streak last week despite 48 points by Antetokounmpo. “And now he is starting to really make the three-point shot consistently.”
Antetokounmpo understands he has had trouble in the past with his perimeter game, but he continues to work tirelessly in that area and will never shy away from taking a big shot.
“My team wants me to shoot, then I will keep shooting them because I know at the end of the day in order to be successful and help my team, in the fullest, I have to knock down those shots,” Antetokounmpo said.
He hasn’t totally turned the corner on three-point shooting, but he is willing to work and improve and is not afraid of failing. Similarly, his free-throw shooting needs improvement. This season he is shooting 59.8 percent from the foul line. It shows that in a basketball-sense, he is human.
Along with the personal accolades, he is looking to lead the Bucks to an NBA title. Last year Milwaukee appeared to be on the way, leading Toronto two games to none in the Eastern Conference finals before losing the final four games.
The way to show improvement is to keep at it, and few do it with Antetokounmpo’s determination.
“I have been around some great guys and really hard workers but he is right there with anybody I have ever been around, if not No. 1,” said Korver, who broke into the NBA with the Sixers in 2003. “He just cares so much and is so talented and so raw. He is just fun to be around.”
Former Villanova star Donte DiVincenzo, who is averaging 8.5 points after an injury-plagued rookie year, talks about Antetokounmpo in the same revered terms as the veteran Korver.
“I couldn’t be blessed more because his mentality every single day is second to none,” DiVincenzo said. “He wants to get better every day. He was MVP last year and is still trying to get better.”
And so far he has been succeeding.
“I have the mind-set to continue to grow and get better,” Antetokounmpo said.