MILWAUKEE – The ball was there for the taking, but an annoying swarm of Suns kept denying Giannis Antetokounmpo what was rightfully his. First Devin Booker, then Mikal Bridges, and finally Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder, an irritating, fluttering web of arms, palms, and fingers, until finally Giannis had enough.
He snatched the ball from Johnson, leapt into the sky and slammed it into the rim maliciously, scoring everything with a left punch and a grunt.
It was just one basket out of 14 for Antetokounmpo on Sunday, a third-quarter sequence in a raise that drove the Bucks to 120-100 in Game 3 of the Finals. But also, it was everything. It was a burst of sheer determination, an outright refusal to give up an inch or a single possession, or a chance to make this final a real series.
For three days in a row, the Bucks had to sink into a 2-0 deficit amid proclamations of the Suns ‘superiority and renewed doubts about the Bucks’ fragility. A loss on Sunday would have effectively ended the series and hardened those doubts. About the supporting cast being too soft. About Antetokounmpo being more Robin than Batman (more Pippen than Jordan, etc., ad nauseam). On his two MVP awards being, well, suspicious.
So he attacked, growled, intimidated and swept until he had 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a thunderous victory, the first Finals victory of his young career. Suddenly, the comparisons involved a very different list of names.
The 103 points Antetokounmpo has scored in his first three Finals games? Only Rick Barry, Allen Iverson and Willis Reed scored more. The 40+ points and 10+ rebounds in consecutive Finals games? Shaquille O’Neal is the only other have done it.
By the end of the night, Antetokounmpo was rejecting attempts to compare him to Michael Jordan, who scored more than 40 points in four straight games in the 1993 Finals (as it happens, against Phoenix).
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” he protested. “I’m not Michael Jordan,” he repeated two more times.
It’s not Pippen either, not that comparisons to a top 50 Hall of Famer should be considered an insult. Neither is Robin, who surely also deserves more crime fighting credit than he gets. And no, it’s not Michael either. None of this applies, in part because there is no point putting definitive labels on a superstar who is just beginning to write his postseason legacy.
But hot things fly fast in this era of 24/7 cuddle debate, and there are few opportunities to tap into and shape your own narrative. After all, this is Antetokounmpo’s first final and it has been downright dazzling so far.
Over three games, he is averaging 34.3 points, 14 rebounds and a .625 field goal percentage, and that’s despite modest production in Game 1, when he was still recovering from a hyperextended left knee. Remember, just a week ago there were doubts that he would play. Now you are putting averages that, if they hold, I’d place him alongside O’Neal and Elgin Baylor.
“I don’t even know how he’s doing, man,” said his teammate Bobby Portis. “Most of the time when guys do that, they come back and relax, or they come back and they’re a little shy and all that. He’s still hanging out and playing the same way, like he never did that. “
Portis added, precisely: “I think whoever gave him the nickname ‘Greek Freak’ did a great job with it, really.”
On this night, Antetokounmpo even made his free throws, going 13 for 17 to a periodic serenade of chants of “MVP”, a welcome change from the mocking count (“one, two, three … 10, 11, 12”) of Suns fans, who mocked Antetokounmpo for his excessively long routine at the foul line. Sometimes the Bucks faithful would shut up to allow their favorite artist to get to work and then explode for each brand.
The comforts of home did them all good. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shot better (14-for-28 combined), and Porter had 11 points off the bench. Together, they strangled Suns star Devin Booker (10 points, 3 of 14 from the field), kept Chris Paul in check (19 points) and put Deandre Ayton in foul trouble.
Giannis did the rest, intimidating Bridges, driving through Ayton and making Crowder nervous. He dumped for every loose ball in the paint, he pounced on every kick. He even delivered six assists, the most since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. By the end of the game, he appeared to be playing with the Suns, dancing with the ball along the perimeter, addressing Pat Connaughton and then sliding out the back door for another thunderous dunk and a 25-point lead. He left moments later to a standing ovation.
When it came time for his post-game interview, Antetokounmpo arrived with his young son in tow, another perk of being home again. As Dad talked, his son played in the back of the room with a multicolored mini-basketball, letting out the occasional squeak of joy.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Antetokounmpo said reflecting on the last few weeks, “just so I can sit here, be interviewed by you guys, play this game, be with my teammates, think ‘I’m going to be out for a year, coming back. It’s been a long journey and I’m trying to enjoy every moment. “
He added, with considerable seriousness: “I don’t worry about the outcome as much as I want to enjoy the game. I want my teammates to enjoy the game. And I know that by enjoying the game, I will compete as hard as possible. “
Legacies are written for years, not weeks, and this one is still being remodeled, recast, and re-evaluated with each game. We cannot know what the final version will be, only that each chapter has its own emotion. We should enjoy it as much as he does.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• Starting unit Synergy drives Suns finals run
• Giannis’s last rite of passage? The superstar who needs help
• Are these endings an aberration or the new normal?
• The finals are amazing. And impressive.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.