During the Milwaukee Bucks’ 120-100 Game 3 victory over the Phoenix Suns, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 28 of his 41 points in the paint. The rest came from free throws.
He made 14 of his 15 field goals around the rim, good for 93.3 per cent. The league average on such shots? 58.7 per cent. The Phoenix Suns – as a team – could only match his 14 baskets within six feet but did so with worse efficiency, on 23 attempts (60.9 per cent).
The only shot he did miss in the paint, a one-handed hook over the helplessly overmatched Devin Booker, was unfortunate to bounce out. It did not matter too much, however, as Giannis gobbled up the offensive rebound and banked it in over Torrey Craig for the and-one.
As Kirk Goldsberry notes, only Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James have had more points in the paint in a Finals game than Giannis’ 28. In fact, O’Neal and Antetokounmpo are the only players in NBA history to score 40+ points and haul down over 10 rebounds in back-to-back Finals game. Talk about impressive company to keep.
Like Shaq in his pomp, Giannis’ dominance around the basket often gives the impression of a grown man on a school playground, dunking dizzy eight-year-olds into oblivion on a plastic hoop too small for him. It would, however, be far too simple to define the ‘Greek Freak’ as a flat-track bully, whatever that nickname might suggest.
Sure, there were the typical brute force plays where Giannis decides (correctly) that there is nothing in this universe that can stop him getting a bucket so does precisely that. But there were also gorgeous evasive euro steps around defenders and soft finger roll layups off each hand, not to mention six assists for only a single turnover.
For all his obvious physical gifts – and let’s be honest, he has plenty – it was Antetokounmpo’s instincts, timing and touch around the basket that earned him those 41 points. There are brains there to match the brawn, demonstrated by his almost clairvoyant reading of loose balls and timely cuts to the basket after screening for a team-mate.
Giannis does not take plays off, you see. He is always scanning the floor. His hands are always up. His mind always racing one step ahead.
One play, in particular, a pick and roll gone awry after Jrue Holiday’s pass was almost intercepted, ended with Giannis fighting off Booker, Mikal Bridges then both Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder in succession for the ball as it bounced around in a sea of flailing limbs.
Somehow it seemed inevitable that only Antetokounmpo would come up with it to slam home. He just wanted it more. It was no surprise to hear him stress the importance of mentality above all else after the win.
It must be said that a factor in Giannis’ near-total control of the paint was Deandre Ayton’s early foul trouble, leaving the Suns without any true interior performance for long stretches in the second half. Even so, when Antetokounmpo is in the mood, as he was on Sunday night, he is near impossible to stop one on one.
Remember, this is a player who suffered a hyperextended left knee just two weeks ago. There was a point where it was unclear even sure if he would play a part in this series. Now here he is averaging 34.3 points, 14 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals across the first three games in his NBA Finals debut. Even his free throw struggles seemed to evaporate in front of home support at the Fiserv Forum as he shot a respectable 13-17 (76.5 per cent) from the foul line.
Most points in first three career Finals games
It’s clear that even with Chris Paul, Booker and Ayton starring for Phoenix, Giannis Antetokounmpo is far and away the best player in these Finals. It might not be enough for the Bucks over the course of a seven-game series.
Then again, given the way he controlled proceedings in Game 3, a throwback to the near-total dominance of a prime O’Neal or James, the tone seems ominous. Giannis certainly has not lost any belief that the Bucks can come back from 2-0 down, even if he has to score 40 points a game. That means the rest of Milwaukee has not either.
The Suns might still be 2-1 up but due to the nature of Sunday night’s defeat, and Antetokounmpo’s performance, it’s hard to tell whether they will actually feel like it. For everyone else, well, I think it is safe to say we are all just glad to have the former two-time MVP playing like this – like himself – on the biggest stage of all.
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