With an eye 3:44 left in the first half on Sunday night, the Bucks led with 8 after a basket by Giannis Antetokounmpo. With a crucial opportunity to build momentum towards halftime, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer pulled him out of the game to try to buy his superstar a break.
In the first two games of the NBA Finals, the minutes of rest for Antetokounmpo went spectacularly bad. In game 3, the Suns seemed to be on their way to repeating themselves. Immediately, Cameron Payne, the Phoenix Suns ’reserve keeper, hit the And-1 schedule and reduced the lead to 5.
But Bucks stopped. PJ Tucker of Milwaukee hit 3, and after a quick break, backup striker Bobby Portis, the Bucks eventually raised it to 10. Antetokounmpo re-entered the game with 1:32 of the remaining Bucks in better shape than when he left, first time all series that occurred.
The Suns would close the game again, but that part was the microcosm of how the Bucks returned to the series, closing the gap in the two-to-one game final. In games 1 and 2 Milwaukee had -27 in the rare moments when Antetokounmpo was off the floor. On Sunday, Milwaukee played against Phoenix even in those same minutes.
A supporting cast appeared that made life easier for Antetokounmpou. In that second quarter, the Bucks outscored the Sun by 18. They won the match, 120-100.
“Obviously, Giannis can go out all the time and score 40 points, but when everyone else is involved, it unlocks him a lot more,” Portis said. He had 11 points and eight rebounds from the bench, which was his first double-digit goal in the series.
And Antetokounmpo was magnificent once again. This was even more unusual considering that less than two weeks ago his season was jeopardized by a hyperextended knee. He followed the performance of 42 points on Thursday with a loss of 41 points in the 3rd game. He even had 13 for 17 from the free throw line. He became the first player to score 40 points and collect at least 10 rebounds in two consecutive games in the final. by Shaquille O’Neal in 2000,, according to StatMuse.
When the chances of Antetokounmpo scoring 40 or more in four consecutive games like Michael Jordan in the 1993 final against the Phoenix Suns increased, Antetokounmpo broke up.
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo said, adding later, “Anything I’m interested in right now, I’ll get another one, that’s all.”
All 14 of Antetokounmpo’s baskets were on the edge on Sunday night, which was an impressive feat given that the Suns strategically used the zone defense to prevent just that.
“He’s physical,” said Cam Johnson, the Sun Keeper. “When he goes downhill, he reaches the basket, he reaches the free throw line, which encourages him to continue. And tonight he hit free throws, and that just opens up his whole game. So, it is up to us to stop him, to give him more resistance. It’s hard to balance that physical aspect of the game, especially when it’s attacking you hard. But you have to do it. “
But the great Antetokounmpo in the postseason is not always translated into victories. There was, of course, a defeat in Game 2 against the Suns. But there was also the opening of the Eastern Conference final series against the Atlanta Hawks, when Antetokounmpo fell by 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, taking away nine assists. The Bucks lost.
In the semifinals against the Nets, Antetokounmpo scored 34 points in games 1 and 4. Milwaukee lost both games. Antetokounmpo has rarely had a bad game in this postseason cycle. Instead, his teammates were unreliable.
Somewhat paradoxically, not having Antetokounmpo on the floor did not always mean a certain doom for the Bucks. The confusing support team drew wins in games 5 and 6 against the Hawks without Antetokounmpo playing at all.
In the third quarter, the Suns made a few mini runs to take the Bucks lead and make the game competitive. At one point the lead was reduced to 6. But at every turn, Jrue Holiday, the Bucks’ keeper, stopped the bleeding with a heavy triple, often up the stairs, which are among the hardest blows in basketball. In the third, he hit four three-pointers and finished with 21 points, along with nine assists.
“We need him to keep playing like this,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “We trust him. He is our leader. He’s our spitz. He is one of our archers. He is one of our defenders. He is a great basketball player and will constantly come up with ways to succeed. “
Holiday saved the Bucks at their best, as in a series game against the Hawks, when they scored 27 points without Antetokounmpo playing. But in the final he often looked lost: he missed open shots, crashed into traffic without any purpose or failed to get right. In the first two games against Phoenix, Holiday he shot from the field an incredible 11 for 35.
Holiday – and the rest of the Bucks – need to hit their goals, especially when the Suns play the zone to try to disrupt Antetokounmp’s path to the basket. On Sunday, the Bucks scored an effective 14 for 36 of 3 (39 percent). Their shooting forced Sun to pay more defenders to Antetokounmpo. The more Suns have to respect Milwaukee’s perimeter game, the more space they will create for Antetokounmpo.
Portis expressed himself best:
“When the guys shoot, it only makes it harder for the opposing team, because now it’s really just a one-on-one game, and a lot of luck in that, really.” After a little laugh, Portis muttered, “Greek freak.”