You begin with the names — first names only — in the Eastern Conference Finals: Kawhi and Giannis.
The last names aren’t necessary. The NBA has always been about players easily identified: LeBron. Wilt. Kobe. Shaq. Steph. Magic. All of them one-name wonders. And, now, two more against each other — Kawhi and Giannis.
Beginning Wednesday night in Milwaukee, the main event has The Greek Freak vs. The Klaw. First name vs. First name. Nickname vs. Nickname. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Kawhi Leonard. The small-market Milwaukee Bucks and the out-of-country, normally disregarded Toronto Raptors in a best-of-seven. The two won’t necessarily play against each other, and neither can be stopped at times, but the road to the NBA championship will definitely go through one of their driveways.
You begin with their names and then look at their hands. There are small countries that aren’t as large as the mitts Kawhi and Giannis have been blessed with. That’s why they call Leonard The Klaw. That’s part of why Antetokounmpo is known as The Freak. Leonard’s hands are bigger than those of Julius Erving or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Giannis’ hands are almost two inches broader than Kawhi’s — or my two hands put together as one of theirs.
They couldn’t be more different yet more the same. Both were chosen 15th overall in the NBA draft, projects, really, to some teams, afterthoughts. Kawhi was picked in 2011. Giannis was chosen in 2013 — a draft in which the Raptors traded their first pick to get Kyle Lowry, and Masai Ujiri feverishly attempted to acquire a pick right until draft night because he was so enamoured with the raw skills of Giannis and all the possibilities therein.
He couldn’t make a deal. Last summer, he made the controversial, much-debated trade for Leonard. Up to now, everything has worked out as planned for the Raptors. Now they head to Milwaukee as underdogs — not giant underdogs, but Giannis may wind up as the league’s MVP. To date, Leonard is the MVP of this playoff season.
“They’re both great, great players,” said an NBA head coach, who offered this view of the two anonymously. “Kawhi is better off the dribble and mid-range game. Both are great defenders. Giannis’ intensity is off the charts. He’s bigger and stronger than Kawhi, more naturally athletic. Kawhi has developed his skills ahead of Giannis. Giannis will get there, he’ll get better. I think (Kevin) Durant is ahead of both of them as far as all-around skills and shooting. One advantage Giannis has is Milwaukee has a better supporting cast than the Raptors but, really, both of those guys, Kawhi and Giannis, are great.”
In Kawhi’s draft year, Brampton’s Tristan Thompson was chosen fourth by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jonas Valanciunas was picked fifth by the Raptors. Nine more players went before Indiana chose Leonard and, on one of those draft-day deals, flipped him to San Antonio.
In Giannis’ draft year, Brampton’s Anthony Bennett was chosen first overall by the Cavs — can you have imagined LeBron with Giannis and Kawhi? — another Canadian, Kelly Olynyk, went before Milwaukee picked 15th. One pick later, former Raptor Bebe Nogueira was selected by Boston.
As people, as players, as athletes, Giannis and Kawhi couldn’t be more opposite. Giannis is built like a seven-foot middle-distance runner, who does hurdles and high jump on the side. The Greek Freak nickname is mostly a tribute to his ridiculous athleticism that few have ever seen by a man this tall.
He is Superman-like, almost flying through the air, doing it with a smile on his face, relaxed, comfortable, happy during the season to meet and willing to celebrate with Greek fans. He isn’t the complaining or arguing type and being in Milwaukee, which is hardly New York, with winter temperatures that can make Toronto seem Phoenix-like on occasion, works.
About his athleticism: It takes him just six steps to cover the entire basketball court, with 13-inch hands, a 7-foot-3 wingspan, an amazing natural who didn’t really learn the game, really, until he came to the NBA. He didn’t play college ball. He played, basically local league, at home in Athens. It wasn’t until a talent scout posted a grainy video online that anybody in the NBA other than Ujiri began to take notice.
At last check, according to a 60 Minutes report a year ago, Giannis was living in a downtown Milwaukee two-bedroom apartment with his mom, his brother and his girlfriend. From a family of Nigerian immigrants illegally in Greece, Giannis has never stopped being that youngster with nothing.
When he arrived at the NBA draft, his agent asked him where his suit was. He didn’t bring one because he didn’t have one. They went out that day searching for a suit, which isn’t easy to find last minute for someone 6-foot-11 and a rather built 242 pounds. They found him what to wear that day — he got drafted wearing that suit, went back to the hotel room and celebrated by jumping up and down on his hotel bed, while the rest of the draft picks were at parties and bars . The next morning, he put the suit back on and headed to Milwaukee to be interviewed.
Kawhi Leonard recently bought a multi-million dollar home in San Diego. Apparently, he has also bought a home in Toronto, possibly as an investment. Who knows what else he owns? He was paid $20 million by the Raptors this season. He will no doubt decline his player option for next season, where he will close to double his salary in free agency.
Unlike Giannis, who is happy to take selfies — patient enough for one at a time — with Greek fans, Leonard is about as private as you can be. Some Raptors players and management types will tell you rather quietly that they hardly know the man at all.
He isn’t public, isn’t quotable, isn’t flashy, is extraordinarily private, but he beat a double-team, took a fadeaway high-arching jumper over the giant Joel Embiid, and the Raptors advanced on Sunday night because of it. Giannis has been great in the playoffs, but hasn’t had to play the part of saviour. The Bucks are 8-1 through two rounds — most of their wins were one-sided. None of them came down to the final minute of play — or, in the case of the Raptors, the final shot.
Giannis is all arms and legs and hands and speed — and quickness. Kawhi plays at his own pace, his own speed, his own self-created game, his physical way, that can’t be compared to anyone else. He finds his shots — and, like Giannis, seems to play two or three positions on any given sequence.
The best two teams in the Eastern Conference, with the two best players, will now compete for a shot at the NBA title. Kawhi and Giannis. Let the names — and the games — begin.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Weight: 230 lbs.
Points per game (playoffs): 31.8
Points per game (regular season): 26.6
Rebounds (playoffs): 8.5
Rebounds (season): 7.3
Free-throw pct.: 85.4
NBA titles: 1
Weight: 242 lbs.
Points per game (playoffs): 27.4
Points per game (regular season): 27.7
Rebounds (playoffs): 11.3
Rebounds (season): 12.5
Free-throw pct.: 72.9
NBA titles: 0
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