In Game 3, Antetokounmpo Didn’t Do All of the Work
MILWAUKEE – With around 3:44 left in the first half, the Milwaukee Bucks led the Phoenix Suns by 8 points in Game 3 of the NBA Finals after a basket from Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was a crucial opportunity to build up momentum before half-time, and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer pulled Antetokounmpo out of the game to try and buy his superstar some rest.
In the first two games of the final, Antetokounmpo’s minutes of rest had been a disaster. In Sunday’s Game 3, the Suns looked set for a repeat. Immediately after Antetokounmpo’s exit, Cameron Payne, a reserve goaltender for the Suns, hit a lay-up and-1 to reduce Milwaukee’s lead to 5.
But the Bucks have taken over. PJ Tucker hit a 3, and after a quick and elegant break from reserve forward Bobby Portis, the Bucks finally pushed the lead to 10. Antetokounmpo returned to the game with 1:32 to play in the first half. time. , with the Bucks in better shape than when he left, the first time all of the playoffs have happened.
The Suns would make the game close again, but that stretch was a microcosm of how the Bucks recovered in the series, narrowing the Finals gap to two games to one. In Games 1 and 2, Milwaukee was under-27 in the rare moments Antetokounmpo was not on the ground. On Sunday, Milwaukee played Phoenix even in those same minutes.
The supporting roles arose and that made Antetokounmpo’s life easier. In that second quarter, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 18. They won the game 120-100.
“Obviously Giannis can go out and score 40 points all the time, but when everyone is involved it unlocks him a lot more,” said Portis. He had 11 points and 8 rebounds off the bench, his first double-digit outing of the series.
And Antetokounmpo was once again magnificent. This was even more remarkable considering that less than two weeks ago his season seemed compromised due to a hyperextended knee. He followed Thursday’s 42-point performance in Game 2 with a 41-point explosion in Game 3. He was even 13 for 17 from the free throw line. He became the first player to score 40 points and grab at least 10 rebounds in back-to-back playoff games since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, according to StatMuse.
When the possibility was raised that Antetokounmpo would score 40 or more in four straight games like Michael Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 final against the Suns, Antetokounmpo interrupted.
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo said, later adding, “All I care about right now is having one more, that’s all.”
Antetokounmpo’s 14 baskets on Sunday night were on the edge, an impressive feat considering the Suns strategically used zonal defense to prevent that.
“He’s physical,” said Suns goaltender Cam Johnson. “When he comes down, hits the basket, hits the free throw line, it encourages him to keep going. And he was hitting his free throws tonight, and that kind of opened up his game. So it’s up to us to stop him, to give him more resistance. It’s hard to balance this physical aspect of the game, especially when it attacks you so hard. But you just have to do it.
But a great Antetokounmpo in the playoffs didn’t always translate into wins. There was of course the Game 2 loss to the Suns. But there was also the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, when Antetokounmpo lost 34 points and pulled off 12 rebounds, while handing out 9 assists. The Bucks lost.
In the semifinals against the Nets, Antetokounmpo accumulated 34 points in Games 1 and 5. Milwaukee lost both games. Antetokounmpo rarely had a bad game in this playoff series. Instead, it was his teammates who were unreliable.
Paradoxically enough, not having Antetokounmpo on the floor hasn’t always meant certain loss for the Bucks, either. The baffling supporting cast won Games 5 and 6 against the Hawks without Antetokounmpo playing at all.
In the third quarter on Sunday, the Suns completed several mini-runs to reduce the Bucks’ lead and make the game competitive. At one point, the lead was reduced to 6. But with each stop, Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday stopped the bleeding with a difficult 3-point, often with setbacks, which are among the toughest shots. to achieve in basketball. He hit four 3-pointers in the third and finished with 21 points, as well as 9 assists.
“We need him to keep playing like this,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “We trust him. He’s our leader. He is our leader. He’s one of our goal scorers. He is one of our defenders. He is a great basketball player and he will continue to find ways to be successful. “
Holiday, at his best, has been a savior for the Bucks, as in the series decisive game against the Hawks, when he scored 27 points without Antetokounmpo playing. But he often seemed lost in the final: missing open shots, sinking into traffic aimlessly, or not making the right pass. In the first two games against Phoenix, Holiday shot a dismal 11 for 35 from the field.
Holiday – and the rest of the Bucks – need to hit their shots open, especially when the Suns play an area in an attempt to disrupt Antetokounmpo’s path to the basket. On Sunday, the Bucks fell from 3 (39%) to 14 for 36. Their shots made the Suns pay for sending more defenders to Antetokounmpo. The more the Suns have to stick to Milwaukee’s perimeter game, the more space it will create for Antetokounmpo.
Portis said it best:
“When the guys take shots it makes it tough for the opposing team because now they’re really just playing one-on-one, and good luck with that, for real.”
After some laughter, Portis mumbled Antetokounmpo’s nickname: “Greek Freak”.
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