MILWAUKEE – It’s easy to forget that just six days ago, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was in doubt for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. A journey of more than two decades that began in Athens, Greece, more precisely in the humble neighborhood of Sepolia, until he reached the door of an NBA title, was potentially stalled due to a hyperextension of his left knee.
Antetokounmpo finally played in the first meeting against the Phoenix Suns, and less than a week later, that injury is undetectable. On Sunday night, Antetokounmpo continued to make noise through the biggest games of his life, dismantling the Suns defense scoring 41 points in Game 3. Milwaukee edged Phoenix 120-100 to reduce the series lead. the Suns at 2-1.
“I’ve seen him do a lot of things like this,” said teammate Khris Middleton. “I am not surprised. I saw him do this for a while and now he is repeating it on the biggest stage. Now everyone has the opportunity to see what happens when he is injured: despite everything he still finds his way to go out there, to compete, to be productive and dominant at the same time. “
The Finals are the ultimate chess game in basketball, as each team calibrates its game of strategy game by game, quarter by quarter, possession by possession. The Bucks modify their pick-and-roll coverage. The Suns are looking to create a defensive wall to repel Antetokounmpo. Both teams try to optimize individual matches.
But sometimes the most important adjustment is the competition.
The Bucks returned to Milwaukee and came to life at home with strong performances from every member of the roster led by Antetokounmpo. Six of Milwaukee’s top seven players posted actual shooting percentages greater than 55%, and the Bucks compiled their best effective court shooting 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, hitting 14 of his 23 attempts. He is only the second player in Finals history to record at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in consecutive games, according to research from ESPN Data. He joined the select company of Shaquille O’Neal who did it against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 Finals.
When told that Michael Jordan had four consecutive 40-point games in the Finals, Antetokounmpo responded:
“I’m not Michael Jordan.”
Antetokounmpo was also the second player in history to score at least 25 points in the paint and accumulate 10 second-chance points in a Final over the past 25 postseason, rejoining O’Neal.
“I’m trying to enjoy the game, trying to play, trying to get in position to be successful,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. You know, when I take each possession at once, I try to put myself in a position to be successful.
“Sometimes, I have to handle the ball. Sometimes, attack the rim. Sometimes, set up a screen.”
Antetokounmpo, part playmaker and part wrecking ball, delivered perhaps the most iconic performance of his career. One that captured the full breadth of his skill set. He put into practice a crisp and intuitive game in which he executed possessions with agility and was rarely seen out of control. When flooded by multiple defenders, he effortlessly moved the ball back to Middleton or Jrue Holiday or made an inside pass to Pat Connaughton or Bobby Portis.
When Antetokounmpo or a teammate missed a shot, he reveled on the offensive board. His four rebounds on offense translated into 10 points, including a pair of double + faults.
“He gets a lot of attention every time he has the ball on the perimeter and in the paint,” Middleton said. “It just makes it easier for everyone to see the gaps and get open shots.”
For all his exploits, Antetokounmpo has endured one of the most dubious stories of the postseason: his troubles at the free throw line. His shaky exhibits there have drawn ridicule from rival crowds and dismay from the Milwaukee faithful. By reaching the Finals, he had made only 53.7% of his free throw attempts.
On Sunday, Antetokounmpo counted to 10 and something more, as he made 13 free throws. After working on the line throughout the postseason, Antetokounmpo looked more comfortable from that position, shooting 13 of 17 (76.5%). With each successive game in the Finals, he has improved his aim from the line.
Holiday’s exit from his losing shooting streak also delighted his teammates in Game 3. The point guard has led the team defensively during the playoffs, but Holiday was unable to put together a full offensive effort in both games played. in Phoenix. On Sunday, he fired up the Bucks in the third quarter, when they rode a 24-6 streak that would lead them to 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 will continue to discover ways to be successful.”
While Holiday generated better shooting quality Sunday and Antetokounmpo exploited his physique to maximum effect, the Bucks prevailed by crafting a formula that has driven them for three seasons: shooting from beyond the arc; a physical mark in defense covering the entire field and Antetokounmpo patrolling the basket.
The attention that Antetokounmpo demands helps facilitate the first part, his instincts and speed empower the second, and the third defies explanation. In each game of these Finals, the Bucks have come a little closer to rediscovering the best of themselves.
“We improved from Game 1 to Game 2. And now we improve from second to third,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to keep building. Keep trusting each other. Keep trusting winning habits. Keep making winning plays, competing hard and keep doing it together.”
The Bucks now embark on that upward trajectory into Game 4 on Wednesday (9 pm ET) in Milwaukee with the knowledge that the series can’t get any closer to 2-1.