MILWAUKEE — It’s easy to forget that as recently as six days ago, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was questionable to take the court for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. A journey of more than two decades that started in the humble Athens, Greece, neighborhood of Sepolia and arrived on the doorstep of an NBA title was potentially stalled, due to a hyperextension of his left knee.
Antetokounmpo ultimately played in Game 1 of the Finals against the Phoenix Suns, and less than one week later, that injury is undetectable. On Sunday night, Antetokounmpo continued his rampage through the most important games of his life, as he eviscerated the Suns’ defense for 41 points in Game 3. Milwaukee overwhelmed Phoenix 120-100 to narrow the Suns’ series lead to 2-1.
“I’ve seen him do a lot of stuff like this,” Bucks teammate Khris Middleton said. “It doesn’t surprise me. To see him do this for a while now, and now it’s on the biggest stage and now everybody is getting a chance to see what he goes through; how he’s hurt and he still finds a way to go out there and compete and be productive and be dominant at the same time.”
The Finals are basketball’s ultimate chess match, as each team calibrates its strategy game to game, quarter to quarter, even possession to possession. The Bucks tweak their pick-and-roll coverage. The Suns erect walls of varying length and thickness to repel Antetokounmpo. Both teams try to optimize the individual matchups.
But sometimes, the most important adjustment is proficiency.
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The Bucks returned to Milwaukee and came alive on their home floor with solid shooting performances up and down the roster, led by Antetokounmpo. Six of Milwaukee’s top seven players posted true shooting percentages better than 55%, and the Bucks compiled their best effective field goal percentage as a team since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Nobody was more efficient than Antetokounmpo. He attacked the basket relentlessly en route to his 41 points on 14-for-23 shooting from the field. He is only the second player in Finals history to record at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in back-to-back games, per ESPN Stats & Information research. He joined the select company of Shaquille O’Neal (2000 Finals).
Told that Michael Jordan notched four consecutive 40-point games in the Finals, Antetokounmpo demurred:
“I’m not Michael Jordan.”
Antetokounmpo also was the second player in history to score at least 25 points in the paint and rack up 10 second-chance points in a Finals game over the past 25 postseasons, joining — guess who — O’Neal.
“I’m just out there trying to enjoy the game, trying to play, trying to put myself in a position to be successful,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. You know, when I take each possession at a time, when I have a possession in front of me, I try to get myself in a position to be successful.
“Sometimes, it’s driving the ball. Sometimes, it’s sealing down in the lane. Sometimes, it’s setting a screen.”
One part playmaker, one part wrecking ball, Antetokounmpo turned in perhaps the signature performance of his career, one that captured the full breadth of his skill set. He played an intuitive, crisp game in which he nimbly executed possessions and was rarely out of control. When flooded by multiple defenders, he effortlessly moved the ball back out to Middleton or Jrue Holiday or made an interior pass to Pat Connaughton or Bobby Portis.
When Antetokounmpo or a teammate missed a shot, he feasted on the offensive glass. His four offensive rebounds translated into 10 points — including a couple of and-1s.
“He draws so much attention whenever he has the ball on the perimeter and on the paint,” Middleton said. “Just makes everything easier for everybody else as far as seeing gaps and being able to get open looks.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo explains what needs to happen in Game 4 for the Bucks to be able to tie the Finals.
For all of his exploits, Antetokounmpo has endured one of the postseason’s more dubious storylines: his struggles at the free throw line. His shaky exhibitions there have invited ridicule from opposing crowds and consternation from the Milwaukee faithful. Coming into the Finals, he had converted only 53.7% of his free throw attempts.
On Sunday, Antetokounmpo got to count up to 10 and then some — as he sank 13 free throws. Having labored at the line for the entirety of the postseason, Antetokounmpo looked more comfortable from the stripe, going 13-for-17 (76.5%). With each successive game in the Finals, he has improved his marksmanship from the line.
Holiday’s emergence from his shooting slump delighted his teammates in Game 3. The Bucks point guard has paced the team defensively throughout the playoffs, and he pressured the Suns’ defense off the dribble in Game 2, but Holiday failed to put together a complete offensive effort in Phoenix. On Sunday, he ignited the Bucks’ in the third quarter, when they mounted a 24-6 run that would carry them to the victory.
“We need him to keep playing like this,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “We trust him. He’s our leader. He’s our point guard. He’s one of our scorers. He’s one of our defenders. He’s a great basketball player, and he’s going to keep figuring out ways to be successful.”
While Holiday generated a higher quality of shots on Sunday and Antetokounmpo exploited his physicality to maximum effect, the Bucks prevailed by cooking up a formula that has fueled them for three seasons: sharpshooting from beyond the arc; a physical brand of defense that covers ground; and Antetokounmpo barreling downhill.
The attention Antetokounmpo demands helps to facilitate the first part, his instincts and quickness empower the second, and the third defies explanation. With each passing game in the Finals, the Bucks have inched closer to rediscovering their best selves.
“We got better from Game 1 to Game 2. And now we got better from Game 2 to Game 3,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep building. Keep trusting one another. Keep trusting winning habits. Keep making winning plays. Keep competing hard, and keep doing it together.”
The Bucks now ride that upward trajectory into Game 4 on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET on ABC) in Milwaukee with the knowledge that the series can’t be any closer than 2-1.