Giannis the Great: Bucks star making his mark in NBA Finals

NBA

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts to a basket against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game 3 of basketball’s NBA Finals in Milwaukee, Sunday, July 11, 2021. Milwaukee won 120-100. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo shook his head, unwilling to place himself in the class of the only player with a longer streak of 40-point games in an NBA Finals.

“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo said.

No, but he’s exactly the player the Milwaukee Bucks need if they are going to win their first title in 50 years. They can tie the series against the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 on Wednesday.

With 42 and 41 points in his last two games, Antetokounmpo has joined LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West and Rick Barry as players to have two straight 40-point outings in the NBA Finals.

That’s halfway to Jordan, who did it four consecutive times in 1993 against Phoenix.

“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo repeated. “But you know, all I care about right now, it’s getting one more, that’s all. Just take care of business, doing our job.”

When Antetokounmpo returned from a knee injury with 20 points and 17 rebounds in Game 1 of the series, he delivered good numbers.

But the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Antetokounmpo will always collect stats. With his long arms and longer strides, he can easily get himself near enough to the basket to snatch a rebound or drop in a bucket.

Good numbers don’t mean it was a great game.

Perhaps still uncertain of the knee or just readjusting to teammates who had played well without him, Antetokounmpo didn’t seize the moment the way the Bucks need. He took only 11 shots — fewer than three teammates.

The last two games were the Greek Freak these NBA Finals demand.

He had 42 points and 12 rebounds in Game 2, then 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks finally got on the board in Game 3 with a 120-100 victory.

“He’s just doing whatever it takes to help his team, to help us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s in an aggressive mindset.”

The two-time MVP needs to stay in it.

Attacking the paint as he did in Game 3 presents problems for which the Suns may not have the answers. He helped send Deandre Ayton to the bench in foul trouble after the center had Phoenix leading into early in the second quarter. And he created open shooting space for Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton to get some clean looks after both struggled in Game 2.

Antetokounmpo largely kept that game from turning into a blowout by himself. With his teammates supporting him better in Milwaukee, it was the Bucks who won big.

“When guys make shots, it just makes it tough on the opposing team because now he’s really just playing 1-on-1, and good luck with that,” teammate Bobby Portis said.

The Suns don’t have a lot of size outside of Ayton, but sometimes Antetokounmpo helps his opponents by settling for jumpers that remain a weaker part of his portfolio.

From his very first basket of Game 3, when he jumped over a defender to grab a rebound that he put back while being fouled, he made it clear he was going to keep going to the rim. When the Suns stopped him by fouling, he made them pay by making 13 of 17.

“He’s physical. When he gets downhill, gets to the basket, gets to the free throw line, it encourages him to keep going. And he was hitting his free throws … and that just kind of opens up his whole game,” Suns reserve Cam Johnson said. “So it’s on us to stop him, give him more resistance.”

Nobody knew what Antetokounmpo could still do when he went down in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta with a hyperextended left knee. Even if he could come back — and it wasn’t clear he would until shortly before tipoff of the finals opener — it was hard to imagine he could deliver the type of historic performances he has.

“I don’t even now how he’s even doing it, man,” Portis said. “Most of the time when guys do that, they come back and ease into it, or they come back and they’re kind of timid and whatnot. He’s still just going out there and playing the same way like he never did that.”

Antetokounmpo wasn’t sure he could when his knee swelled to double its size just two weeks ago. But he was able to make it back for the Bucks’ first NBA Finals since 1974 and he’s determined to enjoy it.

“I want my teammates to enjoy the game and I know that by enjoying the game, I’m going to compete as hard as possible,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I’m going to do the right thing to help my team be in the right position and have the opportunity to win any game we play,”

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