Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have entered the 'prove it' stage.
A team that for much of the season trudged forward at a 70-win pace, the Bucks made a living by feasting on lesser opponents. Despite a series of impressive wins throughout the year - they've beaten the Clippers, Lakers, Rockets, Celtics, Raptors and 76ers, among others - there nevertheless remained a healthy skepticism about their ability to consistently turn it up come playoff time.
That skepticism rang true not only for the peripheral talent up and down the roster but for the reigning MVP as well.
Would Antetokounmpo's regular-season bully ball actually work against the best teams?
If his night in and night out performance is any indication, the answer would appear to be a resounding... YES!
Prior to the suspension of the regular season, Antetokounmpo was averaging a combined 51.6 points, rebounds and assists per game against teams currently .500 or above. How ridiculous is that?
It's better than any player over the last 25 years.
No player over the last two and a half decades - not LeBron James, not Michael Jordan, not Kobe Bryant, not Shaquille O'Neal, not Russell Westbrook, not James Harden - has filled out the stat sheet against good teams quite like the young Buck.
There are skeptics who would try to argue that Antetokounmpo's bid for a second straight MVP hinges largely on his dominance against bad teams. They'd point to Milwaukee's 26-0 record against Eastern Conference teams outside the top six - Hawks, Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Pistons, Knicks, Wizards, Nets and Magic - as an over-inflation of sorts.
Except for the fact that it doesn't hold up.
In fact when you take all 25 All-Stars from this season and stack up their performance against "good" and "bad" teams, there's nobody who has elevated his game more against better competition.
Beyond Antetokounmpo's own play, perhaps more telling is that of teammate Khris Middleton who falls on the other side of the spectrum when looking at performance relative to competition level. There's FAR more to it than simply adding up a player's points, rebounds and assists but it is worth pointing out that he ranks 24th among the 25 All-Stars in performance dropoff ahead of only a 21-year-old in his second season. Unlike Antetokounmpo, the skepticism around Middleton's ability to elevate along with the stakes is at least for this season supported by the data. His viability as a bonafide and bankable second star, perhaps even moreso than the play of the MVP, could ultimately be the deciding factor in just how far this Bucks squad as currently constructed can go.
It's outlandish to suggest that the Greek Freak's season has been slept on. He's operated as the presumptive favourite to win a second straight MVP for a majority of the season and there's been so shortage of oxygen or ink used in articulating his dominance. And yet that skepticism still lingers.
Would anyone really take him in a playoff series against LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard? Would anyone really commit to the 25-year-old as the league's new torchbearer? It might not be fair, but that's the plane that Antetokounmpo now lives on. He's held to an obscenely high standard reserved for only the true titans of the game and if anything it's a sign of the utmost respect.
The playoffs are a different story and it's impossible to gauge the true potential of a player's ability to win big based on what amounts to 23 games against teams over .500 in the regular season. And when it comes to winning big for the Bucks, there's a big difference between doing it against any old playoff team and doing it over a seven-game series against the NBA's other title-contending juggernauts.
But when it comes to casting doubt on Antetokounmpo, proceed with caution. Because the number "51.6" suggests a historic capability to rise to the occasion.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.