Sitting there crying with a towel on his head and joy filling his heart, Giannis Antetokounmpo virtually spoke this very moment into existence in March after winning the Kobe Bryant MVP Award at the 2021 NBA All-Star Game.
“You see players have had this trophy in the past, and just being one of them is an amazing feeling,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve got to keep working hard. I’ve got to keep enjoying the game of basketball. My goal is to be a champion one day. Hopefully, I can hold the big trophy.”
Little did Antetokounmpo know, he’d giddily clutch two on a champagne-drenched night in Milwaukee in the wake of the Bucks’ 105-98 series-clinching victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. In addition to leading Milwaukee to its first championship in 50 years with a 50-point effort that included 14 rebounds and five blocks, Antetokounmpo walked away from this portion of his winding journey as unanimous winner of the 2021 Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award.
A two-time winner of the Kia MVP Award (2019 and 2020), Antetokounmpo joins Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as one of the three players in league history to win a regular-season MVP Award, a Finals MVP Award and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2019-20).
Antetokounmpo also ranks as the first NBA Finals MVP to have also won the league’s Most Improved Player Award (2016-17).
“I can be stubborn sometimes,” Antetokounmpo admitted after Tuesday’s game. “I can disconnect myself from the world because I want this so bad. I wanted this so bad, and I was able to get it. That’s why I was tearing up. But people helped me to be in this position. I didn’t do it by myself. Every freaking day, people helped me.”
Two of those folks — teammates Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — occupy two of the spots in this final edition of the 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder, while Antetokounmpo finishes at No. 1, after leading the chase in Games 3 through 5 heading into Tuesday’s Game 6.
Antetokounmpo cranked out 33 of his game-high 50 points in the second half of Game 6 to cap off a storybook run as the first player in NBA history to rack up 40 points or more, 10-plus rebounds and five blocks in a Finals game since 1973-74 (when blocks became officially tracked by the league).
“In the second half, it was all Giannis,” Middleton said. “I’m not going to lie. He got the ball. He dominated. He didn’t settle; forced his way to the rim, forced his way to the free-throw line. He held us down for the majority of the second half of the game.”
Antetokounmpo accounted for 47.6% of Milwaukee’s scoring output, which ties George Mikan (Apr. 11, 1954) for sixth in NBA history for the largest percentage of a team’s points scored in a Finals game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Antetokounmpo’s scoring outburst included 17 free throws, as he connected on 17 of 19 from the stripe to finish tied for the fourth-most free throws made in a Finals game in league history.
Shooting 61.8% from the field, Antetokounmpo also scored the highest field goal percentage while averaging 35 points or more in the Finals in NBA history, eclipsing Shaquille O’Neal’s mark of 61.1% in the 2000 Finals. Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA Finals history to average 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists on at least 60% shooting.
“It’s hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But the way he made his free throws, the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership. He has been working on it. To win a championship, you’ve got to make free throws and you’ve got to make shots. He’s made shots throughout the playoffs. He’s made free throws throughout the playoffs. [Five] blocked shots, however many points. He’s off the charts. He’s the MVP of the NBA Finals.”
And now, the Top 3 in our 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 35.2 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.2 spg, 1.8 bpg
With the Bucks trailing by five points at halftime, Antetokounmpo wasted no time asserting himself to start the second half. As part of his playoff career-high 50 points, Antetokounmpo racked up 20 points in the third quarter on 6-of-10 shooting in addition to draining all seven of his free-throw attempts, before tacking on another 13 points in the final frame on 4 of 5 from the field and 5 of 6 from the line. “People told me I cannot make free throws,” he said. “I made my free throws tonight and I’m a freaking champion. I made them when I’m supposed to make them. I’m joking, actually, I’m not.” This beautiful message of hope should inspire everyone.
— NBA (@NBA) July 21, 2021
2. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
NBA Finals stats: 28.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.0 apg
Started off the NBA Finals on fire with a 27-point effort in Game 1 and 31 in Game 2, before putting together back-to-back 40-point games in Games 4 and 5 in losing efforts. Booker finished Game 6 with 19 points, and the Suns now own a record of 2-4 this postseason when he scored 19 points or fewer. Booker missed all seven of his attempts from 3-point range and committed six turnovers as the Bucks scored 10 points off the Suns’ 15 turnovers on the night. “Experience is the best teacher,” Booker said. “I keep talking about the hurt, you know. You don’t want this, and this is what you strive for. This is what you go into the summer with, and you take it and use it as fuel.”
3. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 24.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.5 spg
It’s almost cliché now to hear coaches and players talk about being stars in their roles. In Middleton’s case, sometimes his role meant serving as Milwaukee’s star when it was time to close out games. Middleton scored 17 points in Game 6, and it’s important to note the Bucks finished with a record of 15-3 in the playoffs when he scored 17 points or more. Middleton also notched four steals in Game 6. “You know, there was nobody in this world I would rather do this journey with than that guy,” Antetokounmpo said of Middleton. “He’s been here since the beginning. He was yelling to me when I was 18. We were fighting on the court when we were kids, and now we’re on this stage doing it together. We’ve got to do it again. That’s how me and Khris operate.”
And two more:
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 16.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 9.3 apg, 2.2 spg
Shot the ball poorly in Games 4 (4 of 20) and 6 (4 of 19), yet Holiday showcased a knack for finding other ways to positively affect winning. Holiday nearly notched a triple-double (12 points, nine rebounds, 11 assists) in Game 6, and registered four steals to finish at plus-12 in 46 minutes on the floor. “I told [Bucks GM] Jon [Horst], I told Bud when they first traded for me that I appreciated them and it felt good to feel like you’re needed,” Holiday said. “They relied on me, put some pressure on me, but coming from my team and then believing in me means everything.”
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
NBA Finals stats: 21.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 8.2 apg
After a strong Game 1, Paul struggled the next four games, committing a total of 19 turnovers in Games 2 through 5. Paul rebounded with a 26-point effort in Game 6, which registered as his highest scoring output in a loss this postseason. “Speaking of his career, you’re not going to find many point guards ahead of him and you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of players ahead of him when you talk about all-time greats,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
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