PHOENIX — Every time he took a spill, every time he crash-landed to Earth, heck, every time he left his feet, all of Milwaukee swallowed hard Thursday. Such is the fragile state and importance of Giannis Antetokounmpo whenever he goes airborne in a postseason that, as we well know, hath no mercy on the health of franchise players.
The good news today for the Bucks is Giannis, two games into the NBA Finals and two weeks after suffering a hyperextended left knee, managed to rise like the soaring temps in this desert city each time he fell in Game 2.
And now for the questionable and perhaps sobering news for Milwaukee: Can the Bucks, currently lying face down on the floor in this series after Phoenix’s 118-108 Game 2 victory, possibly bounce back like their lone superstar?
On a night when the Suns saw their tenacious backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul constantly pelt the Bucks for buckets, and when they found an additional and somewhat unexpected source of energy from Mikal Bridges, and when they safely protected their home-court advantage in the series, the Bucks left Giannis alone on an island. Without a flare. Or an SOS. Or a boat without a leak.
He had everything, his teammates had nothing. He attacked the rim, placed his body on the line, went to the free throw line for 18 shots and dealt with the fans’ 10-second counts … and his teammates didn’t have his back. Remember when Giannis signed an extension with the Bucks last summer because he believed he had enough help?
Giannis is probably playing on only one leg that’s 100 percent, and in Game 2 where he burned through 40 minutes, he was saddled with teammates who couldn’t collectively give 100%. Where was the urgency?
It was a lethal way of doing business, in a game where the Bucks, despite their imperfections, still had chances yet never generated any traction or put the Suns on red alert. With the series now shifting to Milwaukee fo Games 3 and 4, maybe the Bucks can find some uniformity in this series. Do they really have a choice?
“We’re competitors,” Bucks reserve Pat Connaughton said. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe.”
The only positive vibe for the Bucks going home is Giannis. He looked sheepish in Game 1, understandably so, because he sat the last two games of the East finals and his health wasn’t guaranteed for The Finals. But he stormed back for Game 2 and was a problem for Phoenix.
His 42 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks told the story of a player who if nothing else conquered the psychological demons that usually accompany an injury. Giannis wasn’t tentative and his constant drives to the rim proved that. Yet his was a lonesome experience, and a troubling one for the Bucks.
“To win this series, it’s going to be all mental,” he said.
Actually, it’s going to require all hands on deck.
Khris Middleton had zilch, shooting 5-for-16 with a team-worst minus-15. The shots wouldn’t fall. Then he became frustrated and resorted to forcing contested shots and they didn’t fall, either. Usually a trusty shotgun rider in Giannis’ car, Middleton missed five of his six 3-pointers.
At least Middleton delivered in Game 1. Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday’s misery in The Finals continued for a second straight game. At one point Thursday he was 5-for-19. For the series, Holiday is 11-for-35 overall and 1-for-7 on 3-pointers.
And in addition, Holiday is being stretched thin defensively by Paul, who’s averaging 27.5 points and 8.5 assists per game in The Finals. He’s creating plays and looking like a man possessed at Holiday’s expense. This is problematic for the Bucks because Holiday can usually impact games even if he’s not shooting well.
That’s why the Bucks spent heavily to pry him from the Pelicans last offseason, surrendering three first-round picks, two first-round swaps and two players before giving him a nine-figure extension. Holiday was projected as a difference-maker for a Bucks team that went two straight years with the NBA’s best record only to come up short of a Finals appearance, and also are looking to take advantage of Giannis’ prime years.
So far, Holiday hasn’t restored all that heavy faith. There’s still time in this series for redemption, but he’s officially on the clock.
“We’ll keep talking to him and tell him to be aggressive no matter what’s going on,” said Giannis. “He’s a great basketball player.”
What else? None of the Bucks’ role players are coming up with breakout performances to fill the void. Not Brook Lopez or Bryn Forbes or Bobby Portis, all of whom enjoyed big games for Milwaukee at various points in these playoffs. Now? They’re mainly quiet. Meanwhile, on the other bench, there’s Bridges. He made the Bucks pay for doubling off him by constantly hitting open jumpers in Game 2 en route to a playoff career-high 27 points (or one point less than Middleton and Holiday combined). The Suns are also reaping the benefits of the Cams, Johnson and Payne, who have earned their way into the confidence of Suns coach Monty Williams.
The Bucks have yet to lead in the second half of these games, have yet to cause Williams to scrap his well-crafted game plan, have yet to make a basketball world believe this series is not leaning toward Phoenix. All the Bucks have done is stay rocked on their heels, which was the position they assumed all Thursday night. Their vital signs are flashing red.
“I’m not into coaching those guys,” said the Suns’ Jae Crowder when asked about Giannis’ lack of help. “I’m trying to beat them.”
And so the Bucks are failing to take advantage of their only true strengths over the Suns: Defense, size and Giannis. Only one of those has been a factor — that would be Giannis — and only in Game 2.
With highlights in short supply for the Bucks during their fruitless stay in Phoenix, the few were all confined to Giannis getting on his feet after falling. None were more comforting than the spill he took with 8 1/2 minutes left Thursday. He made a nifty block of Bridges by soaring from the help side, and his momentum sent him sprawling. The Bucks grabbed the deflection and ran up court, while Giannis stayed behind.
It was, briefly, a haunting moment for Milwaukee. Was he down for the count? After stretching his calves to squeeze out the cramp, Giannis was back on his feet, galloping and giving Milwaukee reason to breathe easy again.
If nothing else, Giannis Antetokounmpo is resilient. If there’s any muscle fiber in his body that’s hollering Uncle, Giannis refuses to pay it any mind. There’s a championship on the line, and he endured too much to surrender so easily, and there’s never any guarantee he’ll boomerang back to The Finals again. He’s not taking this for granted.
So while their superstar seems game, we’ll find out in a few days if his reeling and confused teammates can recover and actually help him win one.
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