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MILWAUKEE — Anyone who heard the bloodcurdling screams from Giannis Antetokounmpo as he crumbled to the floor not too long ago in Atlanta would have a hard time negotiating the energetic wails from his toddler son in the postgame of the NBA Finals.
He looked like a broken man that day, and his Milwaukee Bucks, a broken team. So while it’s fashionable to call the Bucks a team that can’t handle adversity and will crumble at first sight, the evidence is actually trending toward this bunch being a resilient one.
Rejuvenated by round-the-clock care, and energized by a desperate crowd that hasn’t seen a game this important in more than 50 years, Antetokounmpo turned in another historic performance Sunday night, this one in a Finals win, a 120-100 beatdown over the Phoenix Suns in Game 3.
For those counting, that’s two straight 40-plus-point games for Antetokounmpo and an endless number of Suns players who are having an impossible time keeping this still-hobbled player from his desired goal.
It wasn’t just the 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, or even going 13-for-17 from the foul line while drowning out the smattering of Suns fans doing the free-throw countdown. It was the force he exerted, the moment he recognized and the way he put his stamp on the Finals, yet again.
“I’m not Michael Jordan. Forty points [how many] straight?” he quizzically asked when it was relayed he was halfway to Jordan’s record of four straight 40-point games in the Finals — against the Suns, no less, in 1993.
Slowly, he’s joining the pantheon and shedding labels that belonged to him and his team for the past couple years, regardless of this series' result.
'Bionic Man' Giannis finally addresses knee injury
The Suns have a remarkable ability of lurking when they aren’t playing well — keeping it close enough to make you sweat and knowing when it comes to winning time, they don’t beat themselves with silly plays or mental errors.
It was going to take a relentless yet cerebral performance to beat them, as opposed to merely coming away with a win.
The Bionic Man did that.
He would have to be bionic considering that day in Atlanta when it looked like we wouldn’t see him for the next week or even the next season — another nightmare for the NBA in a season that’s more about survival than thriving.
“My knee was double the size,” Antetokounmpo admitted, one of the few times he was willing to address his hyperextended left knee many thought was a crippling ACL injury.
It harkened back to that night in Toronto when Kevin Durant silently went down in his last game as a Golden State Warrior, the basketball gods being cruel one more time, or so was thought. It’s impossible to predict what goes through a player’s mind in the interim of such moments: Whether it’s fear, the thought of basketball mortality or even the slight hope that this excruciating pain isn’t as bad as it feels.
Once Antetokounmpo exhaled, he could focus on the new lease he was given, a second chance of a second chance to take advantage of this rare opportunity.
“So, a little bit worried but afterwards when I got the MRI, they told me that whatever it is, I don't know if I can talk about it, that I have a chance to come back, even though I'm not 100% yet, I have a chance to come back and play,” Antetokounmpo said.
It didn’t surprise either Khris Middleton or Jrue Holiday, teammates old and new with the same insight into the tone-setter of this franchise. Middleton and Antetokounmpo developed together, on different tracks but Middleton evolved into a perfect running mate. Holiday joined the track as a missing piece once things stalled a bit.
“To see him do this for a while now, and now it's on the biggest stage and now everybody is getting a chance to see what he goes through,” Middleton said of Antetokounmpo. “How he's hurt and he still finds a way to go out there and compete and be productive and be dominant.”
And even though Antetokounmpo's 20-point Game 1 performance was admirable, it was below the high standards he set and counter to the way this Bucks team was built.
Suns don't have personnel to contain Giannis
For this bunch to be a title team, Giannis has to be the conquerer and all the corresponding pieces must fall into subsequent place. It’s almost as if he looked at the Suns' roster and a light bulb went off: “Nobody can guard me.”
Too big for Jae Crowder, too quick for Cam Johnson.
Too much for the Suns, who could only repeatedly foul him as opposed to giving up uncontested dunks and point-blank looks at the rim. Suns coach Monty Williams was in a foul mood afterward, the tried-and-true tactic of petitioning for a congressional hearing on the calls Antetokounmpo received — but going to the line often happens when freight trains are grabbed, regardless of era or home-court setting.
“I'm not going to get into the complaining publicly about fouls. Just not going to do that,” Williams said. “But you can look — we had 16 free throws tonight. One person had 17.”
Williams doesn’t have the personnel to contain Antetokounmpo at full bloom, no big man aside from Deandre Ayton to deter him from getting at the rim on demand. But it’s almost unfair to expect repeated 40-point showings from Antetokounmpo, if that’s what it’ll take to pull off this mild comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
“I just try to read each possession at a time, and each possession is different,” Antetokounmpo said, denying there’s some master plan at attacking the Suns. “I might say, 'OK, I'll attack this guy this time,' but for some reason that's not working. So, I'm not trying to like have a game plan or strategy in my head. I just want to enjoy the game.”
Enjoying it means not panicking when down 36-30 in the second quarter, because Middleton was rebounding after his subpar Game 2. And it also means trusting Holiday to emerge in key moments, as he did in the third quarter Sunday when hitting numerous triples as the Suns were trying to cut into a 15-point halftime spread.
“They leave me open, too, so I have to continue to shoot them,” said Holiday after his 21-point, nine-assist performance.
Holiday is slowly winning more battles in this cat-and-mouse game with Chris Paul, gaining traction in each game. The Bucks hounded Devin Booker into a poor shooting night, continuing the trend of improving as the series progress.
They might be tougher than we think, even if they seem like slow learners.
The Bucks were the more desperate team, always teetering close enough to disaster but never terribly far from prosperity. No two wins look the same because this team is built to beat you in a multitude of ways, so long as the two-time MVP is the catalyst.
So while Game 3 produced a relatively predictable outcome, it’s hard to pinpoint the better team yet. One thing is for certain: The best player in this series can be curtailed only by a precocious toddler son throwing his toy basketball around a room full of chuckling strangers.
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