MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo started off with the same response to three questions in a row.
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” he kept saying.
With Antetokounmpo having wrapped up his second straight 40-point performance Sunday in leading Milwaukee’s 120-100 win over Phoenix in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the postgame line of questioning naturally shifted toward comparisons to Jordan’s four consecutive 40-point outings in the 1993 Finals against the Suns.
Smartly, Antetokounmpo resisted taking the bait.
“All I care about right now is getting one more [win], that’s all,” he said.
That singular focus is exactly how Antetokounmpo and the Bucks moved into position to tie up this best-of-seven series heading into Wednesday’s Game 4 at Fiserv Forum (9 ET, ABC), and why the former two-time Kia MVP tops the list in today’s installment of Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder.
Relentlessly attacking the rack — similarly to the way he played in Game 2 — Antetokounmpo became the second player in league history to tally 100-plus points and 40-plus rebounds over his first three career Finals games, according to Elias Sports. Antetokounmpo also joined Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished the feat in Games 1 and 2 of the 2000 NBA Finals, as the only players to rack up 40-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in consecutive Finals outings.
“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. I thought he played with the pass well. He made some great reads, found guys, played against the zone. He just did a little bit of everything: offensive boards, putbacks. We need a lot from him, and that’s what he does.”
Although Milwaukee lost Game 2 in Phoenix, it became clear as the night progressed that Antetokounmpo could get to the rim just about any time he wanted. Antetokounmpo scored 42 points to go with 12 rebounds in that Game 2 loss, and in Game 3 all his points came from either inside the paint or at the free throw line, where he had struggled over the first two games in Phoenix as Suns fans threw off his concentration by raucously chanting a count with every attempt.
By relentlessly attacking the paint in Game 3, the Bucks’ superstar forward accomplished a couple of objectives. First, Antetokounmpo’s activities inside led to Suns center Deandre Ayton encountering early foul trouble. Ayton played just 24 minutes, accumulating three fouls by halftime before picking up his fourth just 1:35 into the second half.
Antetokounmpo knocked down 13 of his 17 free throws in Game 3. The 13 makes marked his most since 2019.
Antetokounmpo also created open looks for guards Jrue Holiday (21 points) and Khris Middleton (18 points), who shot a combined 12 for 37 from the field in Game 2. The Bucks are 11-2 this postseason when Middleton scores 18 points or more.
“When he’s rolling sometimes, like he was these last two games, you’ve just got to give him the ball, give him his space and allow him to go to work,” Middleton said. “At the same time, we both know what we can do. He knows what we can do. He trusts us with the ball in our hands.”
“Just being able to trust in ourselves knowing that Giannis is going to be consistent and he’s going to do what he does, but we can also make the game easier for him,” Holiday added. “I think by us cutting and taking guys away and trying to give him space to work allows him to make plays for us and be able to knock down those open shots. Even by us cutting and everything, I feel like it opens space for him to go to work. I think it’s a rhythm we’ve kind of gotten into and being able to figure things out, and we did a good job of that tonight.”
It’s got to continue for Milwaukee to become the second team in this year’s playoffs to overcome 2-0 deficits in multiple series in a single postseason.
The Bucks are now 4-0 this postseason in Game 3s.
“We got better from Game 1 to Game 2, and now we’ve gotten better from Game 2 to Game 3,” Antetokounmpo said. “Keep trusting one another, keep trusting winning habits, keep making winning plays, keep competing hard and keep doing it together. But we’ve got to be better.”
And now, the Top 3 in our 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Finals stats: 34.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.3 bpg
Antetokounmpo’s Game 2 performance gave us all a glimpse of what he would do in Game 3. So the Suns knew what was coming, they just couldn’t stop it. Led by Antetokounmpo, the Bucks finished with a 54-40 edge in points in the paint and they won the battle of second-chance scoring 20-2. “You know what was coming, but [we] just didn’t do enough consistently to withstand their attacking the paint, whether it was penetration [or] offensive rebounding,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We gave them so many possessions. So, we lost a shot, and then they scored off of it. It was a double whammy.”
2. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 24.7 ppg, 8.7 apg, 1.0 spg
Paul finished with 19 points in Game 3, which marked his lowest scoring output since Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. Paul also committed four turnovers, which tied Mikal Bridges for a game high, with all the turnovers coming over the first three quarters (two in the decisive third quarter) in which Milwaukee built a 22-point lead after Phoenix cut the lead to four points by closing on a 24-6 run. “Me and Jae [Crowder] were just talking about that in the locker room,” Paul said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about all playoffs. So, especially on the road, you’ve got to manage the game. You’ve got to manage those ends of quarters.”
3. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 22.7 ppg, 4.7 apg, 1.0 spg
Booker registered postseason lows in points (10), field goal percentage (21%) and minutes (29) in Game 3. Williams pulled Booker out of the game for good late in the third quarter. “There’s nights like that,” Booker said. “The most important part to me is winning the game, and we didn’t do that. So, I’m more frustrated about that. We’re going to get back right. We’re on the road, and we have to come in with the energy and effort. The 50-50 balls, the offensive rebounds, protect the paint — just the details that we talked about. But that’s what the playoffs is. That’s why it’s a series, and we have some room for improvement.”
And two more:
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
Finals stats: 16.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 8.3 apg
Over Games 1 and 2, Holiday scored a total 27 points on 11 of 35 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3-point range before racking up 21 points in Game 3 and tying a postseason career-high by knocking down five 3-pointers. When Phoenix pulled to within four in the third quarter, Holiday drilled a pair of 3-pointers as Milwaukee closed the quarter on a 24-6 run.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 16.7 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 2.0 spg
Ayton’s foul trouble played a major role in Antetokounmpo’s big night in Game 3. Without their starting center on the floor, the Suns have no way of guarding the Bucks wing. Ayton racked up 16 of his 18 points in the first half on 7-for-9 shooting until foul trouble disrupted everything.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting