MILWAUKEE — The impossible often happens when belief isn’t a part of the equation, when preparation meets instinct and a drop of confidence in a split second — that streak of lightning named Giannis sensing the moment, sensing a championship.
Devin Booker threw a pinpoint lob to Deandre Ayton, Ayton in a full gather as the ball sailed over Giannis Antetokounmpo's head, leaving the two-time MVP in position to defend Booker’s drive but not Ayton.
In a swoop, in an instant, Antetokounmpo pushed off that ailing left knee, picked a spot on the backboard and prayed like hell that heaven would help him.
“I thought I was gonna get dunked on, to be honest with you,” he admitted. “You risk it. You kind of feel it. I felt him rolling to the rim behind me, so I knew the only chance to get a stop is just jump toward the rim and try to cover that angle for him to score.”
It wasn’t a buzzer-beater, and it wasn’t the final difference in the 109-103 series-tying Game 4 win for the Milwaukee Bucks. Still, it was the defining play for Antetokounmpo — for this series and perhaps for his career.
The Phoenix Suns were about to tie the game at 101 with a little over a minute remaining, quiet the desperate Fiserv Forum crowd and take a 3-1 lead headed back out west. In that flash, Antetokounmpo tattooed his name and an image into NBA lore. “I was late,” he said.
From here, he seemed right on time — yet another example of this Bucks team showing some mental toughness not many were sure they possessed. They trailed most of the game, shot just 40% from the field and perpetrated so many boneheaded plays through the course of the night it felt like they were going to beat themselves yet again.
In essence, Antetokounmpo bailed out his own team and the NBA league office, the latter of which would have plenty of explaining to do when Booker wrapped up Jrue Holiday with both hands on a fast break, only for the officials to swallow their whistles at the 3:41 mark.
Booker had five fouls and was clearly attempting to campaign for disqualification. With the way he was playing — being the Suns’ only source of offense for most of the second half — it would’ve cleared the way for a Bucks victory.
Staying kept the Suns in contention and the Bucks in the danger zone, until the Bucks’ pillars stood tall in the final minutes.
Wrapped around what Pat Connaughton called “the greatest block of all time” were myriad events, instances that kept this team from folding.
Khris Middleton matched Booker, albeit quietly, shot for shot. He separated himself from everyone in the last 2:15, scoring 10 of his 40 points, one line-drive, midrange jumper after another.
The duo who’ve been the constants in the extreme makeover the Bucks have undergone since becoming a team of the future — the two who would be top-five picks in their respective drafts if the drafts were redone today (and still had to watch Milwaukee draft Jabari Parker second following their rookie seasons) — were the ones who tied this series and put real doubt into its outcome.
In Holiday’s words, they’ve “endured the most,” and it’s true. Antetokounmpo still faces questions about his game and ability as a No. 1 player on a title team, his unorthodox style being hard to embrace. Middleton, a second-round pick by the Pistons who evolved steadily through the years but wasn’t the ideal second option on a title team because he wasn’t viewed as an extreme shot-creator, created shots nobody else could late.
Antetokounmpo even had to endure quiet whispers of his 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award being invalid because he didn’t go man-up against opposing teams’ best players.
Apparently, though, he just makes game-changing plays on a bum leg.
Middleton can just give you buckets at opportune times, and when his heralded teammate has it going, sit on a 10-foot string to make himself open and available for kickouts when Antetokounmpo is doubled.
“Everybody's tired. Everybody's banged up,” Middleton said. “Just have to give it your all and leave it all on the court. We can rest and sleep and get treatment after the game. But while that game is being played, there's no excuses of exhaustion or something is hurt.”
Middleton was keeping the Bucks afloat while Booker was executing from the Book of Kobe, left-handed leaners off the glass, fadeaway jumpers and everything in-between. If Booker had a little bit of help, his 42 points would be viewed the same way Antetokounmpo’s performance will be, along with Middleton’s. But Chris Paul (5-for-13) was hounded into a subpar night at the worst time, feeling like Holiday and Jeff Teague were his shadow.
The sure-handed Paul was tossing the ball to spaces teammates were not (five turnovers), and was stripped late by Antetokounmpo when the Suns were nursing a three-point lead. It was the kind of game the Suns have won all season, the type of night the Bucks were prone to lose over the past few seasons.
But as the Bucks seemed to illustrate in the last two rounds, there’s been some painful growth in this oddly executed season, an ability to win games when not playing at peak efficiency on offense. Booker tore them up, but they didn’t overreact and allow Jae Crowder or Ayton to feast inside.
“I think this is kind of a mental toughness win for us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think both teams are scrapping. I thought Jrue made several winning plays late.”
Holiday shot 4 for 20 and missed all five of his 3-point attempts but grabbed seven rebounds and seven assists. If the outcome was different, his performance would garner more scrutiny. But he grinded right along with the rest of the Bucks, including Antetokounmpo, who faced much more attention from the Suns while still scoring 26 points with 14 rebounds and eight assists.
The ugliness Game 4 sometimes showed was indicative of two teams who know each other in ways they didn’t a week ago: The sets are memorized, the adjustments have largely been made and contention is building with the increased physicality.
“The familiarity is certainly there. They do a lot of really good stuff defensively, creative. Monty does a great job,” Budenholzer said. “But they still have to execute down the stretch. You've got to make plays down the stretch. It's going to be that kind of series it feels like.”
It no longer feels like a series that’s too big for the Bucks. They seem comfortable with where they are now, unless it was merely the home court providing an advantage they’ll relinquish on Saturday night when this series will be untied in Phoenix.
But it wouldn’t have happened if Antetokounmpo didn't do the impossible, the instance Middleton termed, “one of those oh-s*** moments.”
Oh, s*** indeed.
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