MILWAUKEE — The likelihood of winning his first Most Valuable Player Award led to Giannis Antetokounmpo receiving a physical brand of treatment from the suddenly rough-and-tumble Boston Celtics, which led to his late arrival to these Eastern Conference semifinals.
And after six quarters, the presumptive MVP showed up, showed out and dominated the critical stretch of Game 2 Tuesday night with 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a 123-102 win at Fiserv Forum as the Milwaukee Bucks tied the series at a game apiece.
A four-point halftime lead turned into a third-quarter blitz as Antetokounmpo scored 15, hitting both of his triples as the Bucks stretched their lead to 25.
It was the physicality of Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Marcus Morris Sr. that caught Antetokounmpo and his teammates off-guard in the opener, and that style wasn’t turned down in Game 2. Antetokounmpo was just more prepared for it Tuesday night, and understood the rules of engagement: not everything, if anything, will be called by the refs.
“When they hit you, you get off-balance,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports after the game. “You gotta be able to play through the contact, and it's gonna be a lot of contact this series. If that's how it's gonna be, that's how it's gonna be.”
How many defenders does he see when taking those long strides to the basket, the ones that came with such ease against the Detroit Pistons in the first round?
“When I drive, I'm not playing one against one. It's one against two, one against three,” he said.
“Sometimes, when I'm coming down in transition, it's crazy.”
It felt like the Celtics employed their own brand of the Jordan Rules — the Giannis rules, one might say. Baynes isn’t afraid to throw his body around, and Horford is a master of angles, with quick hands, quicker feet and an ability to know precisely where the help defense will come.
Antetokounmpo wouldn’t call it dirty, but he certainly made note of the increased attention paid his way. He went to the foul line 18 times in 31 minutes, following his 5-of-10 free-throw showing in Game 1.
“How much extra can you get? You can get physical, but at the end of the day, I can use that to my advantage,” Antetokounmpo said. “You can play to the limits of fouling. They definitely play to the limits of [flagrant] fouling.”
Antetokounmpo’s own physicality makes it tough to measure who’s hitting whom, or who’s wearing down quicker.
“I hit the weights a little extra this week because I knew,” Morris told Yahoo Sports. “That's the biggest part of his game. I already knew what kind of game we were gonna have, from a physicality standpoint.”
Antetokounmpo took those hard lessons from the Game 1 rout, and after icing his body and ego, came back with a renewed focus. Forcing the action played right into the Celtics’ hands, but he adjusted to hit his open shooters as the Bucks converted 20 3-pointers at a 42.6 percent rate.
“I didn’t do a good job of finding my teammates [in Game 1],” Antetokounmpo said. “Of course, I want to be aggressive, but at the end of the day, you have to make the right play. At the start of the game, the right play was to pass.”
Antetokounmpo’s jumper (2-of-4 from 3-point range) was his saving grace, a shocker to be sure. Luckily Khris Middleton (28 points, 7-of-10 from 3-point range) is a riddle the Celtics have yet to answer after last year’s breakout performance as he kept the Bucks’ boat from capsizing before Antetokounmpo woke up.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer can’t change his team’s identity overnight, and although he made some alterations in Milwaukee’s defensive coverages, the game plan remained similar: Giannis, be great.
It’s a formula that’s worked all season, and even if it felt like stubbornness gone awry, Antetokounmpo hasn’t had any issues taking the onus upon himself. The Celtics are talented and versatile enough to beat you different ways, be it a controlled Kyrie Irving or an improved Gordon Hayward or the maturing Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
While Middleton and Eric Bledsoe crossed the 20-point threshold and can each be impactful on both ends, everything starts and finishes with the long-limbed wonder. Thus, the special attention will accompany Antetokounmpo to Boston this weekend. “Playoff basketball, you definitely get away with a lot more. I watched Golden State … knock James Harden down. I felt they [the Rockets] were looking for [calls] though,” Morris said. “For sure, yeah. We swarm him [Antetokounmpo]. When he's got the ball in the lane, we swarm him and force him to kick it out.”
Should Antetokounmpo win the MVP, he’ll be breaking new ground. Not since Michael Jordan’s first MVP 31 years ago would a winner hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy being so far away from his ultimate potential.
Jordan was a super scorer whose energy allowed him to double as Defensive Player of the Year, but he was years away from being a champion and his game lacked the sophistication that would define him during his next few MVP campaigns.
Antetokounmpo is a similarly developing product, figuring out his jump shot and the angles that will likely make him completely unguardable over the next decade.
Game-planning for him now is Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ nightmare, which will only get more difficult as time goes on, making this series much more critical for the Celtics to win than the Bucks.
But Antetokounmpo doesn’t think that latitude applies and feels the urgency to live up to the Bucks’ top-seeded billing.
“You gotta deliver the first blow,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “Now, you gotta f---ing play. You can't complain to the refs, you gotta play.
“It's not gonna be easy. That's what basketball is about: Nothing is easy. When they hit you, you gotta get back up and keep moving.”
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