Giannis drops 41 as Bucks down Suns, cut deficit to one game
MILWAUKEE (AFP) – Giannis Antetokounmpo powered Milwaukee to a crucial 120-100 victory over Phoenix on Sunday in the NBA Finals, reviving the Bucks’ chances to win their first title in 50 years.
The 26-year-old Greek forward scored 41 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to spark the Bucks, who pulled within 2-1 in the best-of-seven championship series ahead of game four Wednesday at Milwaukee.
“To give ourselves an opportunity to win this series, we’ve got to stay aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s all going to be mental from here.”
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, who had 42 points and 12 rebounds in a game two loss, joined Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 and LeBron James in 2016 as the only NBA Finals players with back-to-back 40-point, 10-rebound performances.
Antetokounmpo hit 14-of-23 shots from the floor and 13-of-17 from the free throw line to lead the Bucks to a crucial victory, as no team has ever rallied from 3-0 down to win an NBA playoff series.
“We knew what type of game it was going to be,” Antetokounmpo said. “We knew we had to play good basketball. I was trying to be as aggressive as I could.”
Jrue Holiday added 21 points and nine assists while Khris Middleton had 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“I was trying to drive and open things up. I knew I had to get Khris and Jrue involved,” Antetokounmpo said. “My teammates want me to be aggressive.”
The Bucks, hosting their first NBA Finals game in 47 years, improved to an NBA-best 8-1 at home in the playoffs by beating the Suns, who had been a playoffs-best 6-2 on the road.
“We knew what we had to do. We knew what this game meant to us, to the city,” Holiday said. “It was about us coming out hard and being able to execute.”
The Bucks won their only NBA crown in 1971 while the Suns seek the first title in their 53-year team history.
“It was a tough lesson for us to learn,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We know we have to play with an unreal amount of aggression for 48 minutes and all our guys know we didn’t. I expect our guys to bounce back.”
Holiday went 8-of-14 after struggling in the first two games, Antetokounmpo drawing defenders to ease his outside shooting efforts.
“It’s awesome. Knocking down shots, it just fuels us and gives us energy,” Holiday said. “We’re going to keep feeding it to him. We have to stay confident and knock down the shots.”
Suns guard Chris Paul, in the first NBA Finals of his 16-year career at age 36, led the Suns with 19 points while Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder each added 18.
Phoenix guard Devin Booker went 3-of-14 from the floor, 1-of-7 from 3-point range, and had only 10 points.
Williams would not talk about officiating but noted: “We had 16 free throws. One person (Antetokounmpo) had 17.”
Antetokounmpo scored nine in a 20-6 spurt to give Milwaukee a 50-42 edge. The Bucks closed the first half on a 10-0 run for a 60-45 Bucks half-time advantage.
“They played with a great deal of aggression for longer stretches than we did,” Williams said. “We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well, especially in the second and third quarters.”
The Suns began the third quarter by hitting 9-of-10 shots from the floor and pulled within 74-70, with Crowder hitting three 3-pointers.
But Milwaukee battled back, scoring the final 16 points of the third quarter to grab a 98-76 lead entering the fourth.
Antetokounmpo, who had 18 points in the first half, scored 16 in the third quarter while Holiday added 12.
“I felt like the momentum was going their way before that,” Holiday said. “I got the momentum going back on our side.”
The Bucks held the Suns at bay in the fourth quarter, ensuring a fifth game Saturday at Phoenix.
“This is one of those games you typically in NBA speak say flush it,” Williams said. “But in the NBA Finals you can’t. We’ve got to learn from it.”