After all, it looks like a competitive final awaits us.
After a frustrating first eight quarters of the series, Giannis Antetekuonmpo and the Bucks delivered one of their most comprehensive performances of the year on Sunday night, a 120-100 victory that effectively saved Milwaukee’s season. There will be no sweep. Chris Paul’s coronation is not imminent. As Game 4 looms on Wednesday, the Larry O’Brien Trophy is firmly on the line.
Game 1 featured an eager Antetekuonmpo and a shy Bucks squad. The Suns posted a 118-105 victory to open the series, and Paul spent much of the second half setting every Milwaukee defender in sight on fire.
Game 2 saw a classic performance from Antetokounmpo, but when the two-time MVP shone, his supporting cast withered. Antetokounmpo finished the night with 42 points on 15 of 22 shooting. Co-stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined to score just 28 points, missing 25 of 37 attempts from the court. The contest provided serious shadows of LeBron James in 2007 and 2018, leading to an outgunned squad with a serious chance of being swept away.
The same script did not continue in Game 3.
Sunday’s victory marked another standout performance from Antetokounmpo as he continued to silence his chorus of critics. Antetokounmpo is, of course, the most unconventional superstar of recent times, but doubting his position as one of the best players of this century is foolish. He’s the sport’s greatest athletic wonder since Shaquille O’Neal, and each year he brings a new side to his game. This is not a Ben Simmons situation. Antetokounmpo’s vision as a pick-and-roll creator continues to grow, and he has a greater touch within the arc than he is credited with. His full range of talents was shown in Game 3.
Antetekuonmpo again led all scorers on Sunday with 41 points, adding 13 rebounds and six assists. The final stat line is jarring, though, frankly, it doesn’t adequately express the greatness of Antetekuonmpo’s performance.
The Milwaukee leader set the tone for the Bucks with palpable urgency in Game 3, attacking the paint through post-ups, ducks and headlong attacks from the perimeter at every conceivable opportunity. The 14 baskets made by Antetekuonmpo reached one and a half meters. He scored seven points during a 16-0 run to close out third, a run that put the competition out of reach as a Phoenix comeback loomed. Antetokounmpo is the third player of this century (joining Shaq and LeBron) with 40 points and 10 rebounds in consecutive finals. He has hit 29 of his last 45 shots, and has more than 24 over the course of the 2021 Finals. Antetokounmpo is a historic player who performs at a historic pace, fulfilling his promise of his physical gifts with relative ease.
Bucks fans will remember Antetekuonmpo’s dominance of Game 3 for years to come, although as we saw in Game 2, an excellent performance in the Finals doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win. But Sunday night was more than just the Giannis show.
Milwaukee’s supporting cast provided the needed help alongside their superstar forward in Game 3, with Holiday doing an excellent performance on both ends of the floor. Holiday rocked the first two really ghastly games, which included an 11-of-35 mark from the field, with a 21-point performance (including five 3-pointers) in Game 3, adding nine assists.
And it wasn’t just the score that defined Holiday’s night. He harassed Paul and Devin Booker throughout the contest, putting Booker out of commission for the entire night. The young Phoenix guard channeled his inside Kobe Bryant in Game 2 by scoring 31 points, including several decisive baskets down the stretch. That version of Booker wasn’t to be found in Game 3. He made just three of 14 shots and one of seven 3-pointers, often forced into tough looks as Holiday fought for the screens.
Holiday’s $ 160 million contract has drawn serious scrutiny this year, and he may not be an ideal top player given his physical limitations. But it’s hard to imagine this manic, physical Bucks defense without him. If Holiday can continue to shoot with a shred of consistency, we could see the Bucks erase a 2-0 series deficit.
We are not planning a parade in Milwaukee yet. Booker will shoot better the rest of the way, the Phoenix crowd will be raging in Game 5, and head coach Monty Williams is sure to find a different formula against Antetekuonmpo in the future. However, regardless of how this series ends, what we’ve seen of Antetekuonmpo so far is worth marveling at. One of the most unlikely MVPs in league history now shines on the game’s brightest stage, delivering spectacular performances less than two weeks after sustaining a season-ending injury. Antetekuonmpo makes the most of his first Finals. Hopefully this is not the last.
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.