PHOENIX (AP) — Running in full stride, Giannis Antetokounmpo chased down Mikal Bridges then soared to smack the Phoenix forward’s fastbreak layup off the backboard and deny what looked like two easy points for the Suns.
The two-time league MVP wasted no time demonstrating he is more than healthy enough to play — and possibly dominate — in the NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo’s presence didn’t lead to a Bucks win on Tuesday night, but did serve notice that he will likely have a major impact on the series. He finished with 20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes after missing two games in the Eastern Conference finals with a hyperextended knee.
“Obviously I’m trying not to make it about me, but felt great,” Antetokounmpo said. “The medical staff cleared me to play. Out there, I had my balance. I felt my knee was stable. I did not feel pain. I felt good.”
And he looked good.
He was a surprise starter in Game 1 — a seemingly questionable move — but the Bucks’ first offensive play of the game was a lob to Antetokounmpo that resulted in a pair of free throws. Antetokounmp used a Euro-step to avoid defenders on a move to the basket and threw down a pair of baseline dunks in the first half; he had a double-double by early in the third quarter.
Antetokounmpo rested during timeouts, often with a towel over his shoulders, and never seemed to need any special treatment. He worked out on the court before Tuesday night’s 118-105 loss and showed Bucks officials that he was ready to play after being sidelined with the left knee injury.
“I don’t think he’s fully 100%,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “But he’s close to it.”
A reminder that Antetokounmpo isn’t an indestructible robot came during postgame interviews. He gingerly climbed onto the podium to answer questions and then carefully stepped down afterwards.
The 26-year-old is known for not making a big fuss about injuries. He repeatedly insisted that his medical situation wasn’t a problem, even though he admits his initial reaction to the injury was “I’m going to be out for a year” and that his knee swelled up to twice its normal size.
He said the effort to get his knee ready for Tuesday was a 24-hour process complete with treatment, weight-lifting, getting on the court, pool sessions and keeping the knee elevated.
“I’m trying my best to not make it about my knee,” Antetokounmpo said. “My knee felt good. Obviously when you go play a game, you never know what’s going to happen. … I’m just happy that I’m out there and I’m able to help my team in any way possible and participate in my first NBA Finals. I’m just trying to put my attention on that and not on if my knee hurts.”
There will be huge interest in how Antetokounmpo’s knee feels Wednesday, but it would be unwise to count him out of Game 2.
He jogged onto the court Tuesday about two hours before tip-off with a large pair of headphones on his head. The athletic 6-foot-11 forward immediately got to work, doing dribbling drills on the sideline and then putting up shots from 3-point range.
“I think Giannis played well. I feel like when you sit out 3 or 4 games, it’s maybe a little tough to come to the first game of the finals and really put on a show like he would, but I think he played well,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He looked well. His body looked well.”
Budenholzer said before the game he was sure his star would be able to make an important contribution, even if he couldn’t score as much as usual.
Entering the finals, Antetokounmpo was averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the postseason.
The Bucks had listed Antetokounpmo as doubtful on Monday, but upgraded him to questionable earlier Tuesday. Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said Antetokounmpo went through the team’s shootaround on Tuesday and the expectation was he would play.
Antetokounmpo was injured in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals when he landed after leaping to defend a lob pass to Atlanta’s Clint Capela. He missed the final two games of that series.
Budenholzer said Monday that Antetokounmpo was doing work on the court and making progress, but provided no other details.
Turns out the forward was much further along health-wise than many expected. That’s good news for a Milwaukee team trying to win its second title and first since 1971.