MILWAUKEE — With about 3:44 left in the first half, the Milwaukee Bucks were leading the Phoenix Suns by 8 points in Game 3 of the N.B.A. finals after a basket by Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was a crucial opportunity to build momentum heading into halftime, and Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer pulled Antetokounmpo from the game to try to buy his superstar some rest.
In the first two games of the finals, rest minutes for Antetokounmpo had been a disaster. In Game 3 on Sunday, the Suns seemed to be in for a repeat. Immediately after Antetokounmpo went out, Cameron Payne, a Suns reserve guard, hit an and-1 layup to cut Milwaukee’s lead to 5.
But the Bucks stood in. P.J. Tucker hit a 3, and off a snazzy fast-break finish by the reserve forward Bobby Portis the Bucks eventually pushed the lead to 10. Antetokounmpo re-entered the game with 1:32 left in the first half, with the Bucks in a better state than when he left, the first time all series that had happened.
The Suns would make the game close again, but that stretch was a microcosm of how the Bucks got themselves back into the series, closing the finals gap to two games to one. In Games 1 and 2, Milwaukee was minus-27 in the rare moments when Antetokounmpo was off the floor. On Sunday, Milwaukee played Phoenix even in those same minutes.
The supporting cast showed up, and it made Antetokounmpo’s life easier. In that second quarter, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 18. They won the game, 120-100.
“Obviously, Giannis can go out there and score 40 points all the time, but when everyone else is involved, it kind of unlocks him a lot more,” Portis said. He had 11 points and 8 rebounds off the bench, his first double-digit scoring outing of the series.
And Antetokounmpo was magnificent once again. That was even more remarkable when one considers that less than two weeks ago, his season appeared to be in jeopardy because of a hyperextended knee. He followed up Thursday’s 42-point performance in Game 2 with a 41-point outburst in Game 3. He was even 13 for 17 from the free-throw line. He became the first player to score 40 points and grab at least 10 rebounds in two consecutive finals games since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, according to StatMuse.
When the possibility was raised of Antetokounmpo scoring 40 or more in four straight games like Michael Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 finals against the Suns, Antetokounmpo interrupted.
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo said, adding later, “All I care about right now, it’s getting one more, that’s all.”
All 14 of Antetokounmpo’s baskets on Sunday night were at the rim, an impressive feat considering the Suns strategically employed a zone defense to prevent just that.
“He’s physical,” Suns guard Cam Johnson said. “When he gets downhill, gets to the basket, gets to the free-throw line, it encourages him to keep going. And he was hitting his free throws tonight, and that just kind of opens up his whole game. So it’s on us to stop him, give him more resistance. It’s tough to balance that physicality aspect of the game, especially when he’s coming at you so hard. But you just got to do it.”
But a great Antetokounmpo in the postseason has not always translated into wins. There was, of course, the Game 2 loss against the Suns. But there was also the opener of the Eastern Conference finals series against the Atlanta Hawks, when Antetokounmpo dropped in 34 points and snatched 12 rebounds, while dishing out 9 assists. The Bucks lost.
In the semifinals against the Nets, Antetokounmpo racked up 34 points in Games 1 and 4. Milwaukee lost both games. Antetokounmpo has rarely had a poor game in this postseason run. Instead, it has been his teammates who have been unreliable.
Somewhat paradoxically, not having Antetokounmpo on the floor hasn’t always meant certain doom for the Bucks either. The confounding supporting cast pulled out wins in Games 5 and 6 against the Hawks without Antetokounmpo playing at all.
In the third quarter on Sunday, the Suns made several mini-runs to cut into the Bucks’ lead and make the game competitive. At one point, the lead was cut to 6. But at each step, Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday staunched the bleeding with a difficult 3-pointer, often with stepbacks, which are among the hardest shots to make in basketball. He hit four 3-pointers in the third and finished with 21 points, along with 9 assists.
“We need him to keep playing like this,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “We trust him. He’s our leader. He’s our point guard. He’s one of our scorers. He’s one of our defenders. He’s a great basketball player, and he’s going to keep figuring out ways to be successful.”
Holiday, at his best, has been a savior for the Bucks, as in the series clinching game against the Hawks, when he scored 27 points without Antetokounmpo playing. But he has often looked lost in the finals: missing open shots, driving into traffic without any purpose, or not making the right pass. In the first two games against Phoenix, Holiday shot a dismal 11 for 35 from the field.
Holiday — and the rest of the Bucks — need to hit their open shots, particularly when the Suns play a zone to try to disrupt Antetokounmpo’s path to the basket. On Sunday, the Bucks went an efficient 14 for 36 from 3 (39 percent). Their shooting made the Suns pay for sending more defenders at Antetokounmpo. The more the Suns have to respect Milwaukee’s perimeter game, the more space it will create for Antetokounmpo.
Portis put it best:
“When guys make shots, it just makes it tough on the opposing team because now he’s really just playing one-on-one, and good luck with that, for real.”
After some laugher, Portis muttered Antetokounmpo’s nickname: “Greek Freak.”