It took a whole lot of walking and climbing in the hours before tonight’s main event for Emmet Ryan to truly appreciate the wonder of Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Greek Freak led his side to victory over hosts Italy
Here’s the thing about middle age. The feats of wondrous athleticism you see from the media tribune are hard to put into context when you’ve seen countless such acts over the years. Hard, yes, but sometimes middle age leads you to do something really dumb that makes Giannis Antetokounmpo watching a three of his roll in, out, then back in again feel like climbing Everest. Actually, after today, it looks more like climbing Olympus Mons.
Your scribe decided to take the middle session off to go to the San Siro to watch AC Milan play Inter in the Derby della Madonnina in football. What I hadn’t taken into account was how rushed it would be on both sides of the trip, including making it back barely in time for this game, or, more importantly, just how much of a climb I’d have up and down from the very back row of the highest stand in the stadium. The football was great, don’t get me wrong, but the journey to and from made me feel every battle for a rebound on the floor in front of me now that little bit more.
In case you were wondering, Italy were at home but Giannis was making sure this was his house. A quick 7 points and 3 rebounds in his first stint set the tone for how matters would be while he was on the floor. Georgios Papagiannis stepped in for him and it wasn’t a seamless transition. As soon as the switch happened, Italy got rolling. Simone Fontecchio, who had been cold to start the night led a charge to cut down the Greek lead and make things reasonably tight at the end of the first.
The Freak returned from his rest to grab an offensive board with his right hand then barely touched the ground before nailing the putback. The show was in town and it was making oceans of space for Greece. It was also noticeable that while Greece with Giannis were obviously a better side in every department, the story with Thanasis on the floor was a touch more complex. Offensively they lost a smidgen with him but defensively they had big holes without him on the floor and that stunted the amount to which the offensive might of Giannis could take a toll on the Italians. So Giannis turned provider, drawing in the Italian defenders as he drove until Nick Calathes was unguarded to take the pass and stroll in to score.
Of course he had to sit again, at some stage and, once more, Italy were able to rally somewhat. Greece are far from one-dimensional, in Tyler Dorsey they have a multi-threat offensively from Dimitrios Agravanis is particularly suited to the style this team plays. There’s a lot to like while Giannis is off the floor but it is still a step down from super god tier and that’s the question surrounding this side.
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When it really matters in Berlin, Giannis will play close to 40 minutes a night. Greece just hopes that isn’t until the quarter final stage. That’s why winning this game mattered. A win here and Greece could realistically afford an unlikely loss to one of Estonia, Great Britain, or Ukraine, and still be certain of top spot with the tie-breakers.
Freaky time. Nik Melli on D and no hope. Just as Italy felt they were stressing Greece out towards the half-time break, Giannis pounced with the floater over him. Then a steal by Giannis which drew a foul just hammered the pain home more.
He’s just not fair. At least that was the rather excellent assessment by Basket News to describe Giannis. Even when he missed, he got to the line and made Melli, who is no shrinking violet in the paint, look like a minor inconvenience.
A little later than the night before, the MVP chants began. There was an Italy rally of three but you know what happened next. Giannis went on a tear, the lead blew out wide and he had time to site again. Wash, rinse, destroy all before you, repeat.
The Italian crowd cheered derisively when he airballed a three, only to immediately get the MVP chants in response from the Greeks. He wasn’t going to let that stand. An offensive board, to bring up the double-double for the night, and another foul drawn, although not from Melli this time.
With almost 8 minutes of play left, I leaned back in my chair. A dangerous idea given how fragile these are and could feel the aches beginning in my vertebrae. That will hurt later. All I needed to do was walk hard for an hour in total with almost 2 hours in between while under some time pressure. Defending Giannis? You don’t just need the physical gifts, you need a level of attention that none but the most irritating of journalists would aspire to. A fraction of a fraction of a second, that’s all you need to miss to fall prey to the Freak. As a child, like all kids I wanted to be an athlete. A footballer really. At 41, knowing the focus involved and the inability to risk even the slightest of distractions, I’m glad my gifts weren’t on the field or court.
I am glad for those that found them. If you measure the difference in talent between a rec league player and the worst player at EuroBasket, it would be an ocean’s distance compared to just a sliver between Giannis and that same player but Giannis makes that sliver feel awfully big. Another dominant night. More to come. Heaven help his three remaining opponents in the group phase because I can’t see them running Greece as close as Italy or Croatia did.