MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first points in Game 3 of the NBA Finals came on a putback lay-in.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time MVP overpowered Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker for the rebound and completed the three-point play at the foul line.
It was a harbinger.
With power and grace, he feasted at the rim and had his best free-throw shooting performance of the 2021 playoffs. Antetokounmpo scored a team-high 41 points — 13-for-17 on free throws — and had 13 rebounds and six assists in the Bucks’ 120-100 victory over the Suns.
“I’m not planning what I do,” he said. “I’m just trying to be out there, trying to take it a possession at a time, try to enjoy the game, try to make the right play, try to screen, rebound, run, whatever I can do.”
It’s a 2-1 Suns lead in the Finals, but it’s a series now because of a special performance from a special player in a game Milwaukee needed to win.
Antetokounmpo relied on his almost unstoppable bully-ball, forcing his way to the rim for dunks, layups and free throws.
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He scored 28 points in the paint, was 12-for-12 inside the restricted area at the rim and his 76.5% shooting at the foul line was his best of the playoffs in a game where he had more than seven attempts.
“He’s just doing whatever it takes to help his team, to help us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s in an aggressive mindset. He always plays that way. But I thought he played with the pass well. He made some great reads, found guys, played against the zone. He just did a little bit of everything. Offensive boards, putbacks. We need a lot from him and that’s what he does.”
Bucks guards Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday said they have seen this from Antetokounmpo before and it doesn’t surprise them.
But this is different. This is the NBA Finals and Antetokounmpo’s first appearance at this stage. This isn’t a regular-season game against Detroit in February.
Through three games of the Finals, he has posted historic statistics.
- His one turnover is the fewest by a player with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a Finals game since turnovers were tracked starting in 1977-78.
- His 24 points in the restricted area are tied for the most in a Finals game over the past 25 years, joining LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.
- Antetokounmpo has scored 103 points against Phoenix, fourth-most by a player in his first three Finals,
- He is third player in Finals history with back-to-back 40-point double-doubles along with James and O’Neal.
Antetokounmpo scored 27 of his points in the second and third quarters, which coincided with the most important parts of the game.
The Suns took a 36-30 lead with 9:05 left in the first half. Antetokounmpo then scored nine points during a 30-9 run to close the second quarter.
Midway through the third quarter, Phoenix cut Milwaukee’s advantage to 74-70 and it was tense at Fiserv Forum. The Bucks went on a 27-9 run that also included a 19-0 run, and Antetokounmpo had 10 points during that decisive stretch.
“When he’s rolling sometimes, like he was these last two games, you’ve just got to give him the ball, give him his space and allow him to go to work,” Middleton said. “At the same time, we both know what we can do. He knows what we can do. He trusts us with the ball in our hands.”
It helped that Holiday (21 points, 12 in the third) and Middleton (18 points) re-discovered their offense and made sure Antetokounmpo’s monster game counted for something more than a footnote.
“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, for real. Greek Freak,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said.
The Suns have allowed Antetokounmpo to score 83 points in the past two games.
“He’s physical,” Suns wing 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.”
And to think he’s doing it on a left knee he hyperextended in the Eastern Conference finals and for a brief moment thought this season and next season were over.
“Giannis is a relentless, a hard worker and gives his all to the team, and he’s selfless,” Portis said. “When you play like that and when you want to win, I think the basketball gods just always rewards you. He never cheats the game. He stays in the gym, he lifts weights hard every day. I don’t know how he can do that and go out and play. But he lifts weights hard every day and he gets his reps in and stays down.
“When you’re humble and hungry like that, it just always just comes back to you.”
During his postgame press conference, Antetokounmpo used the word “enjoy” 11 times — four before being asked why it’s important for him to enjoy this experience and seven times after.
“I don’t worry about the outcome as much as I want to enjoy the game,” he explained. “I want my teammates to enjoy the game and I know that by enjoying the game, I’m going to compete as hard as possible and I’m going to do the right thing to help my team be in the right position and have the opportunity to win any game we play.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.