Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ Game 3 victory at Boston on Friday night. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

BOSTON – The new face of the NBA is so refreshing, so different, that he’s impossible not to like.

Basketball’s newest star never played AAU, didn’t have his hand out on the recruiting trail or pretend to care about freshman English like all those One-and-Dones.

Meet Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11, do-it-all big man born in Athens, Greece, to Nigerian parents. Six years ago he stopped hawking watches and sunglasses to tourists gawking at the Acropolis and got his feet wet in pro basketball in a second-tier league in Greece.

When the Milwaukee Bucks used the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA draft to select Antetokounmpo, the basketball world yawned. Heck, no one could even pronounce his name.

Fast forward to 2019 and everyone knows his name now. You can call him Giannis (Yahn-is) or the tired and trite Greek Freak. At 24 years old, it’s already clear that the successor to LeBron James and Kevin Durant atop the basketball world is a kid from Greece who didn’t know what a basketball looked like for the first 12 years of his life.

Anyone doubting this fact can ask Coach Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics. A year ago the Celts needed seven games to squeeze past Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in a first-round playoff series.

Well, now the Bucks are a year older, much improved and have grabbed the Celtics by the collar and pushed them up against a wall. After ripping the Celtics by 21 points in Game 2, the Bucks gained control of the series with a 123-116 win in Boston on Friday night. Up 2-1, Milwaukee can all but bury the Celtics in Game 4 on Monday night.

This is a perplexing predicament for the Celtics and their fans. For much of the last decade, the NBA’s winningest franchise has fielded strong teams but never could get past the dominance of LeBron James. In 2011 and 2012, the latter stages of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Rajon Rondo teams were sent packing by James and the Miami Heat.

Once the Celtics transitioned to a new era and Stevens came on the scene, James had returned to Cleveland. He and Kyrie Irving knocked the Celtics out in 2015 and 2017, and James outlasted the Celts one more time in last season’s Eastern finals.

Now LeBron is stuck in Nowhere’s Land in Los Angeles but the Celtics have a new problem and it’s spelled Antetokounmpo. Stevens may have Kyrie and a deeper, more talented roster, but he doesn’t have the best player. And the value of running with the top player in an NBA playoff series is unequaled.

Friday night, Antetokounmpo used his unparalleled combination of talents to continually drive by his defender, sashay into the lane and attack the basket like some overgrown 14-year old dominating a youth league. The Celts were left powerless, especially in an NBA where stars can take an extra step or two and always earn the touch foul benefit of the doubt. Giannis paraded to the foul stripe, sinking 16-of-22 tries, and finishing with 32 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

“The guy comes down almost six times in a row and gets free throws. What are you really going to do?” said a demoralized Irving. “It’s slowing the game down so the run that you would hope to make in a quarter like that doesn’t happen. I mean, he shot 22 on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point.”

Actually Kyrie, it’s what you saw so many times with LeBron on your side. The Freak is just that, a physical freak unlike anything the NBA has seen. He’s the rare talent who at 6-11 can take one dribble and glide from the 3-point line to the basket. If the Celtics achieve their goal of building a defensive wall to slow him, he’ll happily skip a pass to open shooters like Khris Middleton and move on to the next play.

“My approach has changed a little bit,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m trying to find my teammates first. We’re trying to make it hard for them to double-team me and hard for them to build a wall. The only way to break that wall is when you pass the ball and find the open guy. I think that’s what I’ve done for two games now and that’s how we’ve hurt them the most.”

So there you have it. The newest star in the NBA, the likely Most Valuable Player, is in the midst of a playoff battle and talking pass-first. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t grow up matching moves on inner-city playgrounds or fantasize about being the next Larry Bird or Steph Curry.

Instead we have a kid from inner-city Athens who came of age fearing attacks from racist militants and deportation to Nigeria even though Greece was the only home he ever knew. In a New York Times profile of Antetokounmpo, the coach who discovered him on an Athens playground, Spiros Velliniatis, said he stopped in his tracks the first time he laid eyes on the tall, skinny 13-year-old.

“It was like something stopped me from the sky. The moment I saw him, lightning struck me,” he said.

Eleven years later the Greek Freak is striking fear into the hearts of Celtics fans. Their team is on the ropes and basketball’s newest star is winding up for a knockout punch.

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