Greek Freak unleashed: What lies beneath Giannis Antetokounmpo's career-high

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff writer
2022-08-11 07:15
Credit: HBF
Credit HBF

As Greece were leading Spain 66-57, going into the last nine minutes of their pre-EuroBasket friendly game at OAKA, Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed a defensive rebound after Jaime Fernadez's missed floater.

The Milwaukee Bucks superstar attempted a coast-to-coast which ended up in him drawing a foul that sent him to the free-throw line. A crowd of 16,000 roared as if they had witnessed something extraordinary. The chant "MVP, MVP" could be heard all over the (huge) arena. Fans stood on their feet for a big round of applause in a gesture taking place very rarely in Greek sports events. 

Greek fans rushed to book a place in OAKA, in order to watch their national team - and also to watch Giannis live after three years and the 2019 Acropolis Tournament games. The Greek Freak delivered with 31 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, giving the crowd their money's worth. The 28-year-old forward stayed on the court less than 21 minutes, a fact that didn't prevent him from registering a new scoring-high in his 50th appearance with the 'blue and white'.

In those 21 minutes, Greece won by 24 points. With Giannis off the court, the balance was negative (-8) for the hosts. That should come as no surprise. 

The 'Giannis effect' was evident on Tuesday night off the court also, as thousands of fans, Greek and tourists, paid a visit to OAKA to watch the two-time NBA MVP in action. The local crowd, invariably impassive and indifferent to the NBA paraphernalia, proudly displayed their Milwaukee Bucks jerseys with the number 34, the one that Giannis is wearing. The name 'Antetokounmpo' was imprinted on almost every back, enhancing the vibe. 

The player himself managed to imbue his performance with passion, celebrations and all kinds of expressions demonstrating that he was greatly enjoying to be back with Greece for the first time after the 2019 FIBA World Cup. That tournament didn't go well for the two-time European champs, who were eliminated from the knock-out stage and the quarter-finals.

Judging from his body language, it was clear that Giannis wanted to show everyone that he's back for good, capable of leading the squad all the way to a memorable 2022 EuroBasket run. For Greece, the question over the last five years has been how to best integrate and utilize Giannis' skills to the team's best interests.

It's a question to which no coach until now has come up with a satisfactory and effective answer. Although it would have been interesting to see what Rick Pitino could have done last year had the 'Greek Freak' been at his disposal, Dimitris Itoudis is the man calling the plays right now.

The new coach of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul is trying to instill his principles into the squad, in a process that will require patience and time. Despite the fact that at least two key players (guard Kostas Sloukas and starting center Giorgos Papagiannis) are sidelined at the moment, Greece's scrimmage vs. Spain showed some of the changes that Itoudis wants to make compared to his predecessors. 

Credit Federación Española de Baloncesto

Transition

Giannis' presence, along with his willingness and ability to run the court can increase Greece's offensive production, either through primary or even secondary fast-breaks. In fact, against Sergio Scariolo's side, the hosts had 17 points off fast-breaks only in the first half (22 overall).

On a night when Giannis Antetokounmpo set a new career record, it was of huge interest how Greece would manage to get the best out of him. Anyone who watched the game could understand that Dimitris Itoudis tried to involve the 'Greek Freak' in many different situations, in an attempt to set him loose.

To a large extent, Giannis attacked Spain's basket in catch-and-drive and transition situations, when he got the ball and just went all the way, as described in the article's first paragraph. He scored 17 out of his 31 points in those two ways, whilst spending only eight possessions. Conversely, he was hardly implicated in pick'n'rolls, cuts, post-ups and off-screen plays. 

Like other coaches in the past, Itoudis is trying to put the ball in Giannis' hands as much as possible. Greece got 13 points in transition situations off 12 possessions. Seven of those points came from Giannis Antetokounmpo off four possessions. In general, Greece ran another eight times, taking only six points when Giannis was not directly involved. 

Even after a basket made by Spain, Greece were trying to catch the Spanish defense off-guard. The few times Giannis wasn't able to attack in the first seconds, he managed to knock down two out of his three attempts from deep, in addition to dishing out two assists - one to Giannoulis Larentzakis when the double-team approached and another one to Nick Calathes for a baseline cut.

Defensive Size & Small Ball

For the most part, Greece had some excellent defensive rotations and quick reactions to mismatches against a team that did not play isolation at all. The hosts showed a desire to press, avoid easy baskets and sometimes, in part due to Giorgos Papagiannis' absence, use Giannis as a 'scarecrow' in the paint. 

Dimitris Itoudis is a coach that enjoys having big men with size. With the exception of Kostas Sloukas, a by no means undersized guard, all of his players are above 1.94 meters tall. In addition to the luxury of having a super weapon like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can play all five positions, Itoudis is called upon to manage an ensemble with a predominantly defensive orientation. Greece will need to dominate the glass, make deflections, steals and stops and ruin their opponents' offensive game by forcing turnovers.

The reigning world champions attacked Greece's basket on ten occasions, whereby they only scored two points.

In their first friendly, Greece tried to press the ball in 3/4 quarters or even full-court. Itoudis instructed his men to either play flat, leaving his bigs (Giannis and Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dimitris Agravanis) behind on all screens. In the second half, he decided to switch on screens, choosing to neutralize Spain's ball-handler with size.

Panagiotis Kalaitzakis was used as Nick Calathes' backup point guard, next to four taller players, in a lineup that had little success. At some point, towards the end of the first quarter, Ioannis Papapetrou, Kostas Papanikolaou, Dimitris Agravanis and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the ones joining Kalaitzakis on the court. 

From that point on and not until Spain cut down the deficit to six (63-57) in the third quarter, Itoudis tried a smallball lineup including Papapetrou, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Agravanis on the frontcourt. The plan didn't go down well, mainly because of its low ceiling offensively. On the contrary, whenever Giannis was placed next to one of his brothers turned out to be particularly effective.

In case Papagiannis - EuroLeague's top shot-blocker last season - is able to make the EuroBasket, he will be joining Giannis, a four-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. With the possible exception of Lithuania, who boast twin towers in Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis, no other team in the upcoming competition can stand up to Greece's duo of two-way big men. 

Giannis At Center

With Spain making a comeback in the third period, Dimitris Itoudis was forced to use a lineup that might be used in critical situations: Calathes, Dorsey, Papapetrou, Papanikolaou and Giannis. 

In fact, the partial score was 15-4 with those five on the court. Greece got the best out of Papanikolaou's hustle and Giannis' insane athleticism (especially for European standards), turning the contest into a pure spectacle to behold.

Although it's still too early to say whether this lineup will be used at the end of close games, since Sloukas and Papagiannis are expected to enter the equation, it's also certain that Giannis will be given considerable time at the center position. 

On defense, the Bucks star isn't going to waste energy by hunting down opponents on one-on-one situations. He will be expected, however, to cover the paint and spread his arms to limit passing angles or contest a shot. This means that the other four players should be able to guard behind the three-point line and leave only the rim protection part to Giannis. Against teams which present multiple low-post threats, like Lithuania, the 2021 NBA champ will have his hands full.

A possible lineup consisting of Calathes, Dorsey, Papanikolaou, Antetokounmpo and Papagiannis could work defensive miracles, without struggling too much offensively. 

In any case, the use of Giannis as a center for 10-15 minutes seems inevitable, since he will be the man to start off the team's engine after a successful defensive effort. Calathes can still run the court as good as any guard outside the NBA, while Dorsey hands Greece one more threat from the perimeter. The Dallas Mavericks shooting guard might turn into the team's X-Factor in the tournament, especially if he shoots the ball consistently.

The Antidote

Judging by their performance at OAKA, Spain have little in common with the powerhouse that took Europe by storm for almost 15 years. For Greece, who had been eliminated by the 'Furia Roja' five teams in every knock-out stage of World Cups (2006, 2010) and EuroBaskets (2007, 2009, 2015), the game held a special significance. The only time Spain went down by the Greeks was in the 2013 EuroBasket, when Juan Antonio Orenga's squad still won the bronze medal.

On Tuesday night, Giannis demonstrated his unquenchable thirst for basketball, almost three months after the Bucks were defeated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. But both Greece and their star player have a long way to go. Although Giannis' popularity has definitely increased over the last 3-4 years, his status as the country's all-time greatest basketball player will be cemented only if he gets to lead Greece to the podium. 

The 2019 World Cup now lies three years behind, but Greece were taught a hard lesson. A narrow loss to Brazil, the inability to keep up with Team USA and an insufficient win over the Czech Republic put the stamp on another failed attempt. So far, coaches of the opponent teams have proven to be very inventive, even deploying old-fashioned methods, in how they've been trying to contain Giannis. 

One shouldn't forget that Sergio Scariolo was a member of the Toronto Raptors' coaching staff which built a defensive wall against Giannis in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2019. The Canadians won the title, bouncing back from 0-2.

In Athens, Spain chose to protect the rim and pack the paint with the players of the weak side whenever Dorsey was playing pick'n'roll with Giannis or every time the Bucks star had the ball at the top of the key and was preparing to attack. Given the fact that the player guarding Calathes could easily move closer to the basket, thus risking an uncontested shot, the Greek-American guard changed some of his habits. Instead of receiving the ball at the three-point line, he cut to the basket running the baseline.

In terms of team building, chemistry and bonding, there are two sides. The first says that most of Greece's players have been together for many years, save one-two exceptions (Dorsey, Kalaitzakis), and that Giannis wants to bring the country in which he was raised to the top.

Credit Federación Española de Baloncesto

The downside to the 'Giannis effect' is the danger for Greece to be labeled as Antetokounmpo's (or, even worse, Antetokounbros') team. Just a few days ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo stressed that it is not possible for his teammates to adjust to him, adding that he should be the one to adapt his game accordingly and with the view to accommodating the team's needs.

After the game, Kostas Papanikolaou addressed the issue of Giannis being looked at as a separate entity from the national team. To argue that he's the team's star and that he belongs to a different level is one thing; to overlook what the other eleven players can bring to the table is another. 

"There's no Giannis and Greece, nor is there Greece and Giannis. Such thoughts would be unfair to the other guys. It's a blessing to play with him, to have him create space for us," the 32-year-old forward told Greek public TV broadcaster. 

A team boasting three All-EuroLeague First and Second Team members (Calathes, Sloukas, Papagiannis) cannot be regarded as a sidekick, regardless of how big an impact Antetokounmpo has, on and off the court. The "MVP, MVP" chants might sound amusing, but they will amount to nothing if Greece come up short once again. 

Giannis, a player who can bully and terrorize his opponents, is capable of changing Greece's habits on both ends, in line with Itoudis' guidance from the bench. Against Spain, the Nigeria-born forward, was a sight for sore eyes.

However, both Giannis and Greece will need to overcome much higher obstacles in the games to come, starting from the reverse fixture in Madrid on Thursday evening. 



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