clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Giannis Is Getting Stronger and So Are the Bucks’ Chances

After happily sending Antetokounmpo to the line in the first two games, the Suns winced at all the whistles in Game 3, as the two-time MVP regained his shooting form and reminded Phoenix of his generational talent

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Monty Williams isn’t going to get into the complaining publicly about fouls. Not one bit. Don’t believe me? Here, let him tell you:

“I’m not going to get into the complaining publicly about fouls,” the head coach of the Suns told reporters after his team was blown out by the Bucks 120-100 in Game 3 of the 2021 NBA Finals on Sunday night. “Just not going to do that.”

OK, good. Glad we got that out of the way.

But, well, now that you mention it—and it’s not that he’s complaining, you understand, but we’re just making conversation here, and hey, this was Scott Foster’s first game of the series, wasn’t it? And anyway, you brought it up—Monty couldn’t help but notice this one line on the postgame stat sheet: “We had 16 free throws tonight. One person had 17.”

That one person, as you surely deduced, is named Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he drew 13 fouls on Phoenix players at home in Game 3—three on both Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, a pair apiece on Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and one each on Devin Booker, Torrey Craig, and Abdel Nader. Watching Antetokounmpo not only draw all those whistles, but also confidently cash in from the stripe—Giannis hit 13 of those 17 free throws, the most he’s made in a playoff game since Game 3 of the second round in 2019—flummoxed and demoralized Williams and the Suns, evidently.

“When he gets downhill, gets to the basket, gets to the free throw line, it encourages him to keep going,” Johnson said after the game. “And he was hitting his free throws tonight, and that just kind of opens up his whole game.”

“It’s tough, man,” Suns superstar Chris Paul added. “Giannis coming at you full speed like a running back, you know what I mean?”

We do. Antetokounmpo repeatedly Derrick Henry’d the hell out of the Suns on Sunday, lowering his shoulder to deliver the boom time and again before hitting the gas and running to pay dirt. He finished with 41 points, shooting 14-for-23 from the field and making the Suns pay for all those whistles, while adding 13 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes.

“We got to figure out or define what is a legal guarding position,” Williams said. “Because there are times where [a defender] can move his hands out of the way, but it’s hard to tell a guy what to do when somebody is running into you, you know what I mean?”

Again, we do. It’s tough to settle on the right message for how to defend an opponent who’s massive enough to repeatedly beast you on the block and on the boards ...

… and who’s also explosive enough to blast past you in space.

It was the best postseason performance of Antetokounmpo’s career, delivered in the biggest game of his life, and honestly, even that might be selling it a bit short. According to John Hollinger’s game score metric—which aims to estimate how productive a player was in a specific game, sort of like single-game PER—Giannis’s Game 3 was one of the dozen most individually dominant performances in the Finals in nearly 40 years.

That’s awfully impressive when you consider that Antetokounmpo was coming off a Game 2 in which he’d popped for 42-12-4 on 15-for-22 shooting. He’s now one of just 12 players ever to log multiple 40-point Finals games; one of only six players to do it in consecutive Finals games (joining Rick Barry, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Jerry West, twice); and one of only two to put up 40-10 in two straight Finals games, alongside only 2000 Shaq. Which is fitting, considering Giannis scored 28 of his 41 points in the paint, and went a perfect 13-for-13 in the restricted area—the geographic region of the court that the Greek Freak has come to dominate like nobody since Wilt Chamberneezy.

And it’s especially eye-popping when you remember that, a little less than two weeks ago, Antetokounmpo hyperextended his left knee, a gnarly injury that initially had plenty of observers—including the man himself—fearing the worst. And yet, here he is, not only making his first Finals appearance, but flourishing in it: 34.3 points, 14 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 37.7 minutes per game, shooting 62.5 percent from the field and marauding his way to nearly 16 free throw attempts per game.

“I don’t even know how he’s even doing it, man,” Bucks reserve big man Bobby Portis said after the game. “Most of the time when guys [suffer an injury like] that, they come back and ease into it, or they come back and they’re kind of timid and whatnot. He’s still just going out there and playing the same way like he never did that.”

“Playing the same way,” in Giannis’s case, means doing a little (or a lot) of everything, all the time, and with maximum speed and force.

Antetokounmpo attempted more field goals and free throws than any other player in Game 3, but he actually started Sunday as a facilitator. He dished four assists in the first quarter, looking to get his teammates involved after they struggled to rise to his level in Game 2: a hit-ahead pass to Jrue Holiday for a catch-and-shoot 3 from the left corner; a shovel pass to Brook Lopez under the rim for a layup; a pitch and a screen for Khris Middleton to get the All-Star loose in the two-man game; a drop-off to Portis after a drive from the top of the key to reward a well-timed baseline cut.

After Middleton, Holiday, Lopez, and Portis combined for 38 points in the Game 2 loss, Giannis seemed intent on getting them each an early bucket. Correlation isn’t causation, but it feels notable that the quartet combined for 61 points in Game 3, providing precisely the sort of boost Milwaukee needed to get on track after falling behind 0-2 in the series.

“When I have a possession in front of me, I try to get myself in a position to be successful,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after the game. “Sometimes it’s driving the ball. Sometimes it’s sealing down in the lane. Sometimes it’s setting a screen. I just try to read each possession at a time, and each possession is different.”

After the first quarter, though, an awful lot of those possessions seemed to end with Giannis forcefully attacking the rim. That was especially true after Ayton—a vital component in Phoenix’s two series-opening wins who’d gotten off to a monster start to Game 3—went to the bench midway through the second quarter.

Backup center Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1, so Williams dusted off third-string big man Frank Kaminsky to see whether he could contribute spot minutes when Ayton needed a breather. Wholly unconcerned with Kaminsky looming as the last line of defense, the Bucks promptly began to hammer the paint, scoring buckets in the lane on five of their next six possessions to surge into the lead.

Ayton returned late in the quarter, but would pick up his second and third fouls just before halftime and—crucially—would add a fourth just 95 seconds after intermission. Giannis scored six points in the paint in the first two minutes after Ayton went to the bench, prompting Williams to dial up a 2-3 zone to try to keep him out of the lane. It worked for a while, as a small-ball lineup spread Milwaukee’s defense out enough to cut the deficit to four. Late in the frame, though, Giannis began bulldozing the Ayton-less Suns with drives, duck-ins, and offensive rebounds to rebuild the lead. An inverted pick-and-roll led to Giannis finding Pat Connaughton for a catch-and-shoot 3 that put the Bucks up by 22 entering the fourth and all but stuck a fork in the visitors:

The Suns spoke after the game about how disruptive it was to have Ayton in foul trouble—he’d picked up five or more fouls only 11 times during the regular season, and hadn’t yet in the playoffs—but also emphasized that, as Crowder put it, “we have enough bodies to get that job done.” When the job is guarding Giannis, though, that hasn’t really been true.

In the 86 minutes in this series when Antetokounmpo and Ayton have both been on the floor, Milwaukee has outscored Phoenix by three points—essentially a draw. In the 27 minutes that Giannis has played with Ayton sitting, though, the Bucks have blitzed the Suns by 21 points, scoring a blistering 135.1 points per 100 possessions and grabbing more than 61 percent of available rebounds. And nobody besides Ayton on the Suns has had a prayer of hanging with Giannis one-on-one:

Giannis vs. the Suns

Defender Partial Possessions Giannis Points FGM FGA FG% 3-Point Attempts Shooting Fouls Drawn
Defender Partial Possessions Giannis Points FGM FGA FG% 3-Point Attempts Shooting Fouls Drawn
Deandre Ayton 56.2 28 11 25 44.0% 7 5
Jae Crowder 40.2 28 9 12 75.0% 1 4
Mikal Bridges 12.4 9 4 4 100.0% 0 1
Devin Booker 10.6 13 5 6 83.3% 0 5
Torrey Craig 8.2 5 1 2 50.0% 0 0
Chris Paul 9.4 6 3 3 100.0% 0 0
Cam Johnson 7.7 12 2 3 66.7% 0 4
Cam Payne 5.4 0 0 0 0.0% 0 1
Non-Ayton Suns 93.9 73 24 30 80.0% 1 15
Via NBA Advanced Stats’ defensive matchup data. Only includes defenders who have spent more than five partial possessions on Giannis.

The good news: Ayton’s become a skilled enough interior defender that it’s unlikely he’ll spend the rest of the series in foul trouble. (Williams’s “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’” postgame comments certainly seemed aimed at further decreasing the odds.) Combine more Ayton with bounce-back outings for Devin Booker (just 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting, and zero fourth-quarter minutes) and Cameron Payne (seven points on 3-for-10 shooting, a team-worst minus-18 in 25 minutes), and Phoenix should be right back in business.

But then, y’know, the bad news. The pain of the Saric injury is starting to be felt: Kaminsky’s a glaring liability, even in limited minutes, and Milwaukee found success against Phoenix’s zone by going big with Giannis and Portis, who grabbed eight of the Bucks’ 13 offensive rebounds. Holiday got off the schneid, scoring 21 points, drilling five 3-pointers, and dishing nine assists while continuing to hound Paul and Booker all over the court. Middleton carved the Suns up as an initiator when they decided to start blitzing him in the pick-and-roll, dishing six assists in a strong floor game. An improving defense that’s putting more pressure on the ball, forcing more turnovers without fouling, and tightening up on the perimeter held what had been a rampaging Suns offense to a dismal 103.1 points per 100 possessions in Game 3.

And, most importantly, Giannis not only looks unbelievably good post-hyperextension; he looks like he’s getting stronger.

Our Ringer NBA Odds Machine still favors Phoenix, giving the Suns a 72 percent chance of finishing off the series it leads 2-1. But probability might matter only so much against an opponent whose combination of size, strength, speed, and skill is so wildly improbable. The Suns have the lead, but the Bucks have the best player in this series, and when he plays like this, the Bucks feel like they can win every night. When he plays like this, there’s little opponents can do except grasp for answers anywhere they might find one—like, say, in Not Getting Into the Complaining Publicly About Fouls.