It’s not always easy to accentuate the positive after falling behind in the NBA Finals. Luckily, the Bucks—who lost Game 1 118-105 on Tuesday, thanks in large part to Chris Paul and the Suns scoring a blistering 145.8 points per 100 possessions during a game-changing third quarter—have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who helpfully identified a bright spot in the loss, which is that his left knee is not presently composed of soggy shredded wheat.
“When the play happened, I thought I’m going to be out for a year,” Antetokounmpo told reporters, referring to the awkward landing that hyperextended his left knee and knocked him out for the backstretch of the Eastern Conference finals. “So I’m just happy that, two games later, I’m back.”
After days of uncertainty over his status heading into Game 1, Antetokounmpo did indeed return on Tuesday. And while he wasn’t quite the same world-breaker he is when healthy—he didn’t seem to be moving nearly as well on defense as he typically does, with one extremely notable exception—it’s absolutely a sterling silver lining that he was able to be out there at all, let alone somewhat resembling his full form and approximating his full impact.
Just seven days after being helped off the court against the Hawks, the two-time MVP scored 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting, grabbed 17 rebounds, dished four assists, snagged two steals, and added that one thunderous chasedown block. In a game the Bucks lost by 13 points, they actually outscored Phoenix by one in the 35 minutes that Giannis played. And the best news of all: Antetokounmpo said he felt great during Game 1, and that he felt no pain in that hyperextended left knee.
The hope is that all that remains true in the run-up to Thursday’s Game 2, potentially opening the door for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to ramp up Antetokounmpo’s workload. Milwaukee needs every erg of energy and efficiency Giannis can muster as a battering ram and facilitator; Phoenix’s lead ballooned in the third quarter, but the Bucks had put themselves behind the eight ball with a dismal start offensively, managing only 49 points in 53 first-half possessions and shooting just 42.9 percent as a team. It needs all the help-side havoc he can wreak, especially as Paul and Devin Booker (who combined for 59 points Tuesday) take turns torturing the Bucks’ most vulnerable defenders, whether they’re switching screens or playing drop coverage. It needs whatever lineup flexibility it can find, whether it comes in mastodon-ball big lineups—Giannis–Brook Lopez–P.J. Tucker lineups are plus-28 in 245 minutes this postseason—or smaller, more slithery configurations, like the Giannis–Khris Middleton–Pat Connaughton–Bryn Forbes–Jrue Holiday unit that chopped Phoenix’s lead from 20 to seven midway through the fourth. (The dirty little secret there, though, is that the Bucks’ run came during a brief breather for both Booker and Deandre Ayton. As soon as they returned, so did the double-digit advantage.)
The Bucks need everything Giannis can give them—everything he gave them all season, and then some—because the Suns are really, really freaking good. Phoenix is deep, disciplined, and exceptionally well-drilled, capable of dissecting both your preferred plan of attack and your counter. One thing that would help reduce Milwaukee’s dependence on Antetokounmpo, though, would be its starting point guard emerging from the funk in which he played for much of Game 1.
This is the Holiday the Bucks need in this series—the version who aggressively hunts opportunities to get downhill, touch the paint, collapse the defense, and create scoring opportunities, for himself or for his teammates.
Too often on Tuesday, though, Milwaukee got a jankier Jrue—one more apt to launch a low-percentage long-range attempt early in the shot clock than work for something better, or to turn down a clean look without much of a Plan B.
After teaming with Middleton to propel the Bucks past Atlanta in games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals while Giannis healed up, Holiday sputtered upon entry into the championship round on Tuesday, scoring just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in Game 1. He did add nine assists against three turnovers and seven rebounds in 40 minutes, many of them spent trying to chase and harass Booker and Paul. Though not, by virtue of Milwaukee’s defensive schemes and Phoenix’s manipulation of them, often ending possessions in those matchups; according to Dan Feldman of NBC Sports, Holiday “was the primary defender on just seven of Paul’s and Booker’s 40 shots.”
To be fair: Acting as the first line of defense against two All-NBA-caliber offensive weapons while also providing consistent north-south burst, rim pressure, and drive-and-kick playmaking is an extremely tough job. It’s the job Holiday was brought to Milwaukee to do, though—the one Bucks brass forked over five first-round picks and between $135 million and $160 million for.
Holiday slotted into his role perfectly during the regular season, and while his postseason has seen valleys (see: his shooting against Brooklyn in Round 2), it’s also had its peaks (see: games 5 and 6 against Atlanta). In the latter moments, the ones when he’s slicing through opposing defenders all the way to the rim and sticking to his man like a shirt to your ribs on a 100-degree day, it becomes abundantly clear why Milwaukee’s decision-makers and virtually every NBA observer had highlighted Holiday as such a critical upgrade over Eric Bledsoe as a big-game option at the point. On nights like Tuesday, though—when he’s alternating between eschewing drives to take jumpers he shouldn’t and forcing the ball into traffic rather than stepping into shots he should take—Holiday becomes the one thing Milwaukee can’t afford: less an upgrade on Bledsoe than just an updated version, a mere variation on the same enervating theme that Bucks fans have heard over and over in recent postseasons.
Holiday can be more than that. The Bucks need him to be if they want to have a chance of slowing down Paul, who has created a whopping 122 points via score or assist over his past two games, or Booker, who shot just 8-for-21 from the field in Game 1 but worked his way to 10 free throws and added six assists. (Or, for that matter, Ayton, who shot 80 percent from the floor on a steady diet of high-low passes after sealing a smaller defender and alley-oops after rolling hard to the rim.)
Milwaukee’s path to tying the series starts with making life tougher on Paul and Booker up top. Maybe that’s through sprinkling in more cranked-up coverages, like deploying an occasional trap to try to force the ball into the hands of a less experienced playmaker—say, Ayton—on the short roll, or testing out a hedge-and-recover scheme. Increased aggression, however, brings increased risk: While those approaches could put more pressure on the ball, they definitely would put more pressure on Milwaukee’s back-line defenders to rotate on a string to keep Paul and Co. from picking them apart. Just ask Denver what happens when Phoenix gets a good look at your high hedge and you’re not airtight on the back end; the Suns averaged nine corner 3-point tries per game against the Nuggets, drilling 40 percent of them in a four-game sweep.
It’s also possible that the Bucks review Game 1 and think that the no. 1 defense in this postseason needs revision rather than revolution. Maybe they stick with switching, but do it more selectively—empowering Holiday, for example, to do his damnedest to stick with his man through every pick and redirect, rather than simply giving up the soft handoff to Lopez or Bobby Portis in space. Maybe they go back to drop coverage, but try to emphasize greater connectivity—Holiday and the other Bucks guards more aggressively chasing the Phoenix ball handlers over the top of the screens, while the bigs come up a step or two closer to the ball and look to use their length to prevent Paul and Booker from getting to their preferred spots unbothered.
It’s not the cleverest adjustment there is, I’ll grant, but sometimes just doing what you already do well a little better can be pretty powerful. Make the opposing top guns a bit less comfortable, get a bit more on offense from Holiday, don’t miss 19 shots in the paint, find a way to narrow a 25-9 Phoenix edge on made free throws, and Milwaukee will be in business, with a shot to steal home-court advantage and give its brightest ray of hope—the 6-foot-11 Greek god who may only get stronger once he gets his sea legs again—a better chance to shine.