He has taken his team to the conference finals for the first time in nearly two decades. He is a three-time All-Star at age 25. He is the reigning NBA MVP. But for Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the challenge of a lifetime comes this weekend in Shanzhen, China.
That’s when Antetokounmpo will suit up for, by far, the biggest game of his international career, a showdown against Team USA that Greece must win to keep alive its hopes of reaching the World Cup quarterfinals. The Americans will be without Jayson Tatum for that one.
Greece managed a win on Thursday against a remarkably competitive New Zealand team to close out initial group play. Antetkounmpo had his best game of the tournament, with 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but the stakes will be raised as the tournament moves to the second round. Team USA, meanwhile, dispatched Japan in its first-round finale.
Less than a week ago, this tournament represented an opportunity for Antetokounmpo to ascend to the top of the world stage. He is by far the best player participating in the World Cup and with the relative weakness of Team USA this time around—Kemba Walker is the Americans’ biggest star—Antetokounmpo was presented with the chance to bring a gold medal home to Greece.
Entering the World Cup, Greece was listed as the third-favorite among oddsmakers, behind Team USA and Serbia. Then Brazil happened.
Antetokounmpo Was Shut Down During Greece’s Loss to Brazil
On Tuesday, Greece blew a 17-point lead against Brazil, a talented bunch but a perennial underachiever. Brazil stormed into the lead with a dominating third quarter and won the fourth quarter, getting a game-winning floating jumper from Anderson Varejao with 14 seconds left. A missed free-throw with two seconds remaining helped Brazil seal the game.
But the story of the Brazil game was what Antetokounmpo did in the fourth quarter: Almost nothing. He took one shot. He drew a foul and made two free throws. Yes, he played good defense, but he chipped in just two points offensively.
What’s more, the Brazil coach, Aleksandar Petrovic, shrugged off the threat of Antetokounmpo, saying he’d had a plan for defending him all along. Antetokounmpo had just seven points on 3-for-7 shooting in the game.
“We showed that we have several players who can stop Antetokounmpo,” Petrovic added. “But yesterday I was more preoccupied with [Kostas] Sloukas and [Georgios] Printezis, and that’s what happened today. We have much more problems with Sloukas and Printezis. … When I was preparing this game, a lot of people talked and joked about how to stop Antetokounmpo. I had for six months in my head, since the semifinals between Toronto and Milwaukee, how to stop Antetokounmpo.”
The Crowning of Antetokounmpo on the World Stage Must Begin With a Team USA Win
What had the potential to be a coronation for Antetokounmpo, then, has become a much different story. The structure of the World Cup tournament has Brazil, Greece, Team USA and the Czech Republic in Group K, and both Brazil and the U.S. have 3-0 records.
At 2-1, Greece needs to beat both the Americans and the Czechs to have a chance to advance. If they do, they’ll move on to the quarterfinals—and essentially eliminate Team USA in the process. Should the U.S. and Greece both finish Group K at 4-1, Greece will have the advantage for having won the head-to-head matchup.
Team USA barely held on to beat Turkey in its second tournament game and will be weakened by the loss of Tatum to an ankle injury. They have looked ripe for an upset over the past month.
But Antetokounmpo has not looked like his MVP self in this tournament and has not seized the mantle of world’s best player the way many thought he would. If he is going to change that, it’ll have to happen on Saturday.