MILWAUKEE — This city waited 47 years to host an NBA Finals game and its team waited 47 years and three games to figure out how to play one.
What’s a few more games if it means you suddenly have the most dominant player in the series and a firmer and maybe secure grip on what it will take to bring some suspense to the championship round?
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are less desperate and more smarter today. They finally read The Finals blueprint correctly and realized their assets and strengths. They’re the bigger team than the Suns and bringing the mightier superstar, yet haven’t managed to flex until now.
And so the series is now 2-1, with the Bucks cutting into both the Phoenix Suns’ lead and also a vein and inviting the Fiserv Forum to chant in unison “Bucks In Six,” which may be a wish but at least it’s mathematically possible.
It’s mainly because of Giannis and his decision to flaunt a style of big-boy play that’s turned him into a beastly force, and that had a domino effect on his team and ultimately, produced the 20-point Game 3 victory.
Giannis is punching the Suns right in the belly, concentrating his length and speed and agility towards the rim while eschewing the jump shot, and reaping all the benefits of that: layups, dunks, putbacks and trips to the free throw line.
“He’s doing whatever it takes,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He does a lot and we need a lot from him.”
Oh, and they’re getting the full and total package. Giannis is averaging 34.3 points, 14 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 15.7 free throw attempts and shooting 62% in this series. Keep in mind that, in the first game, he was still dealing with the mental demons of returning from a hyperextended knee that benched him nearly two weeks. On Sunday he became only the second player in Finals history to drop 40-and-10 in back-to-back games; the other was Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
And that’s no coincidence, because Giannis is very Shaq-like, confining his talent within 15 feet of the rim and causing big problems for the smaller Suns. Amazingly, it has taken the Bucks three games to understand that Phoenix is at a severe size disadvantage, especially after losing backup center Dario Saric with a knee injury. By constantly attacking the rim, not only can the Bucks get free throws, but they can also put Deandre Ayton in foul trouble. And that’s exactly what happened in the second half; Ayton scored 16 in the first half and then the fouls piled up and he turned quiet. He scored only two more points and Phoenix was forced to (a) put Jae Crowder on Giannis and (b) play Frank Kaminsky 13 minutes — and neither were good options. Both were a total mismatch for Giannis.
Best of all for the Bucks: Giannis shot 13-for-17 from the line, perhaps no doubt helped by the absence of “1-2-3 …” chants from road fans trying to distract and exploit his lack of accuracy.
“I’m trying to put myself in position to be successful,” he said, “Each possession at a time. I’m not planning what I do. Each possession is different.”
Essentially, Giannis is keener and selective about when to drive, when to post up, when and where to roll off screens … and when not to settle for jumpers, particularly from deep. It’s not a coincidence that Giannis is playing at his best when his 3-point shots are fewer. He took only two Sunday, and one of them was when the Bucks leading by 20 so what the heck.
“He was aggressive,” said Budenholzer. “Well, he’s always aggressive, but he made some great reads.”
Giannis wasn’t the only one who wised up. The Bucks as a whole were better prepared about defensive switches and how to use their size on both ends. They outrebounded Phoenix by 11. They were more physical, with Bobby Portis (11 points, 8 rebounds off the bench) showing the way. They handled Suns leading scorer Devin Booker better; he missed 11 of 14 shots.
“This group is about getting better and learning,” Budenholzer said. “It’s about getting shots and also making things hard on them.”
Jrue Holiday sprung free of his Finals funk and found his shooting range, shooting 5-for-10 from deep. He hit a pair of those in the second quarter, which flipped the game sharply in Milwaukee’s favor, and the Bucks never looked back.
“We need him to keep playing like this,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I think he will. He’s going to keep making great plays for us.”
Giannis’ faith in Holiday and his teammates never wavered, even during a winless trip in Phoenix to open the series when his support was spotty and their decision-making was questionable. Truthfully, though, the Bucks might need to get more of the same from Giannis, too. In rapid fashion, he has gone from a player whose health was iffy to a hurricane that the Suns can’t handle.
His performances, especially in the last two games, bring to mind Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, when the sharpshooting big dragged a Dallas team that lacked star power to a championship. Yes, it’s a small sample size for Giannis and the Bucks are not in control of the series, yet if nothing else the Suns are suddenly on red alert regarding their efforts against him.
Giannis said: “I’m not Michael Jordan, I’m not Michael Jordan” in response to a question about Jordan scoring 40 or more in four straight Finals games. Giannis added, humbly:
“I’m happy I’m able to be out there, happy to have a chance to come back [from injury].”
No, he’s not Jordan. That’s OK for Milwaukee, because in this series, Giannis is suddenly Giannis again, or maybe better, all things considered, than the player who won two MVPs. Those awards came during the regular season. There’s a higher sense of urgency now, with the grand prize on the line, with the Bucks feeling renewed faith after a convincing Game 3 victory.
This city, starved for a championship team, is making a massive emotional investment in the Bucks. An estimated 25,000 fans stood in the “Deer District” and watched for hours on big screens just outside Fiserv Forum, and over 16,000 on the inside emptied their lungs — except when Giannis went to the free throw line.
Bucks In Six? In the course of 48 minutes Sunday, that chant went from desperate to hopeful, which qualifies as an upgrade. The city and team believe the best of the Bucks lie ahead.
“We got better between [Games] 1 and 2, and 2 and 3,” Giannis said. “We just got to keep building. That’s our goal.”
Can Giannis, after a pair of 40 pieces and more bounce in his step, possibly build on what we’ve seen from him so far? Is that even possible?
If that answer is yes, then we’re in for a longer series than we thought after two games.
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