Giannis Antetokounmpo had become such an attraction after just a few seasons in the league that ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said a couple years ago he wanted to see the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas, even if it was just a practice.
The jump out of the gym explosiveness, the ability to go end to end — or until wherever he decides to leap for a dunk — in just a few strides made Antetokounmpo a highlight waiting to happen. The league took notice and put the Bucks on the Dec. 25 schedule last year, their first appearance since 1977.
The Bucks are back this year, bringing the NBA’s best record to Philadelphia powered by a much more complete MVP.
The athleticism that helped the Greek Freak score a career-best 52 points against the 76ers last March is still there, now bolstered by emerging leadership and outside shooting skills that might just make Milwaukee (27-4) the team to beat this season.
Things like sugar and soda are absent from his diet, with Antetokounmpo, who turned 25 this month, having learned what it takes to keep him available to play as often as he possible.
“Because when you’re a rookie, you eat a burger before the game, you drink a Coke and you just go out there and play,” he said. “But as you grow older you can’t be doing that. You know that that’s not going to last and once you realize that as fast as possible, that’s going to help you take care of your body.”
A reliable perimeter shot has taken longer but Antetokounmpo could be getting there. He made five 3-pointers last week when the Bucks beat the Lakers in a showdown for the NBA’s best record and is hitting 34.2% while taking more than five per game, by far the most in his career. Like Michael Jordan and LeBron James before him, he was already good enough to be one of the best even before he developed a good jumper. Once they did, they became champions and Antetokounmpo, averaging 31 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists, could be on a similar path.
“We’re certainly excited about what he’s doing and how he’s improving as a shooter just in general, including the 3,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, “and we know that if he’s making those and the way he can attack and get to the basket and get to the rim, it’s just going to make things really, really difficult on the defense. So he’s just got a lot of work to keep doing and he will do it.”
Budenholzer also raves about Antetokounmpo’s improved communication with his teammates. Antetokounmpo said he had been more comfortable leading by example, but understood that his voice needed to be heard more.
“I think going to the offseason, obviously you’re growing up and you come back, you see the team and you realize this is your team and guys want to hear your voice and you do not just have to lead on the court, you’ve got to lead off the court also,” he said. “So I just had to be more vocal and Coach Bud wants me to be more vocal and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
The Lakers are hoping LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy enough to play in their Christmas night matchup with the Clippers.
Plenty of other players won’t be able to go.
The five-game schedule is a little lacking thanks to injuries. Toronto, hosting Boston in its first Christmas home game, is playing without Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell. Golden State, the team the Raptors beat for the NBA title, has been going without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, leaving the Warriors without much of their firepower — which they will likely need to beat high-scoring Houston at home.
And of course, New Orleans has played all season without No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, the chief reason the Pelicans got on the Christmas schedule in the first place. They visit Denver in the nightcap.
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK
New York at Brooklyn, Thursday. The Nets are 2-0 against the Knicks this season and can wrap up season bragging rights in New York — which they realistically clinched in July when they signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
San Antonio at Dallas, Thursday. The Spurs will try not to cool off too much during their holiday break after ringing up 145 points and 67.4% shooting on Monday at Memphis.
Milwaukee at Atlanta, Friday. The NBA scoring leaders, averaging better than 120 points, against a dismal Hawks defense that ranks near the bottom, allowing more than 118 per game.
Philadelphia at Miami, Saturday. Jimmy Butler and the Heat handed his old team its first home loss earlier this month. Now the 76ers visit a Heat team that is an NBA-best 13-1 in their building.
Dallas at the Lakers, Sunday. The Mavs return to Staples Center after opening the month with a 114-100 victory there.
THE POLLS WILL BE OPEN
Voting for the NBA All-Star Game opens Christmas morning before the games begin. Fans can vote at NBA.com or the NBA app, as well as Google.com, the Google app or the Google assistant.
Fans will account for 50 percent of the vote, while a media panel and the vote of all current players will account for 25 percent apiece.
Voting concludes on Jan. 20. The All-Star Game is Feb. 16 in Chicago.