We have learned so much about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and the Milwaukee Bucks as they have completely lost control of their series against the Toronto Raptors. What we have learned is really what they have not learned: how to finish off wounded prey.
Toronto was down 0-2 a week ago and running out of options. Kawhi Leonard was limping. Pascal Siakam wasn’t quite himself. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Toronto’s bench weren’t reliable every night. Milwaukee had a chance to win Game 3, which went to overtime. But Giannis couldn’t get his offense going with Kawhi and all of the Raptors watching his every move. And Kawhi did get going to the tune of 36 points in the slugfest win.
Two more hard-fought wins later, the Raptors are on the brink of making the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
It won’t be the first time for Kawhi, though, and as cliché as it sounds, the fact that he has been there before is a big reason he’s on the verge of going back. This is what Kawhi took from the Spurs: resilience, chill, patience.
Kawhi won Finals MVP in 2014 as the Spurs smoked the Heat. But that was Kawhi’s third long playoff run: the Spurs had gone to the Finals the prior year and made the Western Conference finals in Kawhi’s rookie season. His experience built up naturally, and he didn’t have to lead the way until he was ready in that third year. He learned at the feet of Gregg Popovich, who’d already had four championships by the time Leonard showed up. He had experienced champions in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker around him. Everyone knew what to do in the critical moments under bright lights in front of crowds boisterous or hushed. They had been there before, and that had to ease the way for Kawhi (and his partner then and now Danny Green, as well).
Now, it didn’t always work. The Spurs’ poise didn’t translate to victory late in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals, for instance, or in that epic first-round series against the Clippers in 2015. Sometimes the other team is just better or luckier. But even in defeat the experience of being there matters. It impacts you. You learn from it.
Kawhi has been able to learn from lots of high-pressure situations in his career. Giannis and the other Bucks’ stars have not.
This is Milwaukee’s first deep playoff run of the Giannis era. That they got this far is incredible. This is an amazing learning experience for Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon, even if they lose on Saturday or in a Game 7. They will be stronger next time because of what they learned about themselves and high-pressure NBA basketball from this moment.
Consider the arc of the pre-KD Warriors. We imagine them as a fully formed superpower that stormed into the spotlight and never looked back. But their 2015 title run was preceded by two other playoff experiences: a first-round loss to the Clippers amid the infamous Donald Sterling saga and a second-round loss to the Spurs in 2014. Being in those crucibles tested Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and taught them something ephemeral. They applied those lessons in 2015 and beyond. (Also, the coach was upgraded, Draymond Green was freed, and the front office added veteran pieces around them.)
We saw something similar with the Denver Nuggets this postseason: for all but Paul Millsap, being in high-pressure NBA games with real stakes was a new experience. Sometimes, the young Nuggets overcame that to beat the Spurs and then Blazers. But in the end, they couldn’t finish the job against Portland (which had some more experience). Next year and beyond, Denver will be better off for the experience it had this year. The same goes for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Kawhi has been there. Danny Green has been there. Kyle Lowry has been there. Marc Gasol has been there. Serge Ibaka has been there. Experience isn’t everything, but it’s something, and it looks to be making a difference in the magic moments with the ultra-close series on the line. You can see the difference watching Kawhi calmly execute on the critical possessions (whether it goes in or not) while Giannis and the Bucks get a little flighty, a little disorganized, a little panicky. That’s the experience differential. And sometimes, that’s the only separation one superstar needs over another.