Faced with the biggest test of his young career, Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo gave a herculean performance on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, leading his Bucks to their first title in a half century with 50 points in a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns.
The 26-year-old overcame a knee injury he suffered in the Eastern Conference Finals and his own poor free throw shooting in the playoffs to grab 14 key rebounds and block five shots while sinking 17 of 19 from the line on Tuesday.
Prior to Game 6, the Athens native known as the ‘Greek Freak’ had made just 55.8 percent of his foul shots in the postseason while being teased relentlessly by opposing crowds.
Tuesday, in his adopted home town of Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo didn’t listen to ridicule, but rather chants of ‘MVP’ from the capacity crowd at Fiserv Forum and the estimated 65,000 fans surrounding the arena.
Naturally, voting media members agreed, and awarded Antetokounmpo the NBA Finals MVP award.
‘People told me I can’t make free throws and I made them tonight,’ Antetokounmpo said after winning his first NBA title. ‘And I’m a freaking champion.’
‘It’s hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does,’ Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said after Tuesday’s win. ‘But the way he made his free throws, the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership – he has been working on it.
‘To win a championship, you’ve got to make free throws and you’ve got to make shots,’ he continued. ‘He’s made shots throughout the playoffs. He’s made free throws throughout the playoffs. [Five] blocked shots, however many points. He’s off the charts. He’s the MVP of the NBA Finals.’
Antetokounmpo surprised the basketball-loving public back in December by singing a five-year, $220 million extension with the club amid rampant speculation he would try to force his way to a bigger market to match his burgeoning star power.
But for Antetokounmpo, one of five sons born to Nigerian immigrants, winning with the team that drafted him as a skinny teenager in 2013 was too important.
‘I wanted to do it here in the city and I wanted to do it here with these guys,’ Antetokounmpo said.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrates his first NBA title with his young son, Liam Charles
Milwaukee Bucks stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton embrace at mid-court after their NBA Finals win
Antetokounmpo hugs Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer after Tuesday’s Game 6 win
Without mentioning LeBron James or Kevin Durant by name, Antetokounmpo made it clear at his post-game press conference that he never had any interest in teaming up with established All-Stars to win a title.
‘That’s my stubborn side,’ he explained. ‘It’s easy to go somewhere and win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. I could go… to a super team, and just do my part and win a championship, but this is the hard way to do it.’
Exactly three weeks after suffering a knee injury that appeared to put his future in doubt, Antetokounmpo carried the Bucks to their first championship in 50 years. Just as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to its first championship in 1971, the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo made sure a big man also carried the Bucks to their next title.
Antetokounmpo was an easy choice for the MVP honor after posting at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in three of the six games in this series.
He did all that while dealing with a hyperextended left knee that prevented him from playing in the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks. Antetokounmpo initially feared the injury was more serious and would keep him out of action for an entire year. He instead was back on the floor a week later for the start of the NBA Finals.
He collected 20 points and 17 rebounds in a Game 1 loss. He followed that up by producing at least 41 points and 12 rebounds in each of the next two games.
But his biggest impact may have been on the defensive side.
‘I think he embraces us being great defensively,’ Budenholzer said. ‘Giannis does, the whole team. When we get stops and get out and run and get Giannis in space, get our team in space, I think he’s special. He was able to put his stamp on the game in the third quarter and flip the score. And then some big plays in the fourth quarter — big plays, big blocks. It’s hard to keep finding words for Giannis.’
Bucks center Brook Lopez reacts after a slam dunk in front of Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and forward Jae Crowder (99)
Bucks fan Oneya D’Amelio poses with a sweatshirt reading ‘A Tinkle And A Title’ in reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first-quarter bathroom break earlier in the series. Antetokounmpo eventually admitted that he left the game to use the bathroom
Antetokounmpo drives on Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton during Tuesday’s Game 6 win in Milwaukee
The Suns are focused on patching up a defense that allowed a pair of 40-point games to Giannis Antetokounmpo (right), another to Khris Middleton and a memorable Game 5 effort from Jrue Holiday. While the Bucks have shared the leading role to win three straight in the series, the Suns continue to lean heavily on Devin Booker (left). He has 82 of the team’s 222 points in the past two games — a pair of 40-point efforts, both in losses. Williams allowed that Booker wants to ‘win the moment’ but the Suns need more of the team attack in Game 6
Bucks center Brook Lopez tips the ball away from the Suns’ Deandre Ayton in the first quarter
Then he played major roles in the two signature plays of this series.
First he blocked Deandre Ayton’s dunk attempt to prevent Phoenix from tying Game 4 with just over a minute left. And after Jrue Holiday made a steal with the Bucks protecting a one-point lead in the final minute of Game 5, Antetokounmpo raced down the court and was on the receiving end of Holiday’s alley-oop that helped clinch the game.
He saved his finest outing for the championship clincher. Antetokounmpo became the first player to collect at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in any playoff game since Shaquille O’Neal in 2001.
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams (right) talks with guard Chris Paul (left) as they play in the second quarter
Antetokounmpo scored 20 points in the third quarter alone to help Milwaukee rally from a 47-42 halftime deficit, though the game was still tied 77-all heading into the final period.
He had 27 of the Bucks’ 48 total points through the game’s middle two quarters. And after making just 55.6% of his free throws in his first 20 games of this postseason, Antetokounmpo went 17 of 19 from the line Tuesday.
His rapid recovery to lead Milwaukee to it first title since 1971 represents the crowning achievement in Antetokounmpo’s remarkable rise to NBA stardom.
The 26-year-old Antetokounmpo noted at a Monday news conference that he hadn’t even started playing basketball yet in 2007, when LeBron James made his first finals appearance. His rare blend of size and athleticism made him the No. 15 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and he made his first All-Star appearance four years later.
He earned back-to-back MVP honors in 2019 and 2020 while leading the Bucks to the league’s best regular-season record each of those years, but they kept falling short in the playoffs. The Bucks blew a 2-0 lead to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals and lost to Miami in the second round last year.
Antetokounmpo kept his faith in the Bucks by signing a supermax extension in December. He also decided to take a different mental approach.
He acknowledged getting too caught up in the emotional swings of each win and loss earlier in his career. He stayed more level-headed this year while also emerging as a more vocal leader.
‘I was getting too high [after wins], and maybe the loss I felt like it was the end of the world,’ Antetokounmpo said Monday. ‘I feel like this year, lose or win, that did not happen. I was the same kind of guy. I just live with whatever outcome comes because I believe that I’m supposed to be there in that time and place.’
That strategy allowed the Bucks to erase 2-0 deficits in the second round against Brooklyn and again in these finals. It helped Antetokounmpo deal with the uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of his injury.
And now it has him on the highest of highs as the MVP of a league championship series.
The 1970-71 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks pose for a team portrait in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Seated from left, Bob Boozer, Greg Smith, Bob Dandridge, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at the time), John McGlocklin, Lucius Allen and Coach Larry Costello. Standing: Trainer Arnie Garber, Jeff Webb, Marvin Winkler, Dick Cunningham, Bob Greacen, McCoy McLemore, Assistant Coach Tom Nissalke
(Left) Chris Paul defends Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Right) Paul and Bucks guard Jrue Holiday line up during a first-quarter free throw attempt in Milwaukee
Comedian Dave Chappelle attends Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Bucks and Suns
A mounted deer head is pictured alongside a sign indicating that the Bucks need one more win
FINALS RATINGS UP FROM 2020 BUT TRAIL PRE-PANDEMIC VIEWERSHIP TOTALS
The NBA Finals has gained some, but not all, of its audience back after last year’s trip to the pandemic bubble.
The first three games of the championship matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks averaged just about 9 million viewers, the Nielsen company said.
That’s up 41 percent from the 6.38 million who watched the first three games of last year’s series between the L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat. The 2000 series was held in the odd time of late September and October and played without live audiences due to COVID-19 restrictions.
This year’s series is close to normal in timing, and live audiences have returned. Compared to the pre-COVID 2019 series where Toronto beat Golden State, this year’s audience is down 34 percent, Nielsen said.
Most events tend to lose viewers from year to year, with the increased choices that consumers have. The 2019 series also featured the well-known Golden State Warriors, who were competing in their fifth straight Finals.
The Finals helped ABC dominate the prime time ratings, as the network averaged 4.6 million viewers for the week. NBC had 2.9 million, CBS had 2.7 million, Univision had 1.8 million, Fox had 1.7 million, Ion Television had 1.1 million and Telemundo had 1 million.
– The Associated Press
Tuesday was not a storybook ending for veteran Chris Paul.
As the final buzzer sounded, the stone-faced 36-year-old slowly walked off the court, down the tunnel and into the locker room.
His feel-good story with the Suns was denied the happy ending he craved.
One of the NBA’s most accomplished players finally got to the sport’s biggest stage in his 16th season. He’s an 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection and nine-time All-Defensive selection and often referred to as the’Point God’ for his near-perfect profile as an elite point guard.
But he still lacks a championship.
‘For me it just means back to work,’ he told reporters afterwards. ‘Back to work. Nothing more, nothing less. Ain’t no moral victories or whatnot. We sort of saw what it takes to get there and hopefully we see what it takes to get past that.’
The Suns won the first two games of the series only to lose four straight. It was a brutal collapse for a team led by Paul, who is regarded as one of the best leaders and point guards in NBA history.
Paul’s performance against the Bucks in these Finals ran the gamut: He was the hero in a Game 1 win with 32 points, then he was the goat in a Game 4 loss with five turnovers, including a particularly costly one in the final minute. In the decisive Game 6, he led the team with 26 points and added five assists.
It wasn’t enough.
With 40 seconds left and the Suns down 8, Paul’s desperation 3-pointer clanked off the rim.
Any chance at a miracle comeback was done.
Paul made the Finals run with an unlikely cast that included Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, young players making their first playoff appearances. He was traded to Suns during the past offseason from the Oklahoma City Thunder, bringing instant star power to a franchise that hadn’t been to playoffs in more than a decade and hadn’t made the Finals since 1993.
The trade paired Paul with coach Monty Williams, a close friend and mentor. Williams was the coach in New Orleans when Paul played for him 10 years earlier. The two had another chance to make it work.
It didn’t quite happen.
It’s a tough ending to the season for Paul, who remains one of the game’s most relatable players. He’s just 6-foot, which gives him an everyman feel that some of the NBA’s giants lack. He’s got the goofy State Farm commercials. He’s had a handful of bad breaks, like when he pulled his hamstring in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in 2018.
That poor fortune looked like it would continue in the first round of these players when he suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was ineffictive for the next several games but his teammates carried the load.
Then there was a few weeks ago at the Western Conference finals, when Paul missed the first two games against the Los Angeles Clippers in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol. Again, his teammates were there for him, rallying to win both games.
He was supurb in the game that clinched his first trip to Finals, scoring 41 points in the Game 6 series clincher.
It earned him the opportunity he always craved. It ended in disappointment.
Beer & Deer: Milwaukee Bucks fans adorned with antlers and beer cans prepare for Game 6
Milwaukee Bucks fans smile before the game against the Phoenix Suns during Game Six of the 2021 NBA Finals on July 20, 2021 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee
Fans make their way into the Deer District before Game 6 of the NBA basketball finals game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee
Fans on scooters approach Fiserv Forum ahead of Tuesday’s Game 6 in Milwaukee
A group of Giannis Antetokounmpo fans wearing custom ‘Greek Freak’ jerseys gather before Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum
Two hours before ticket-holding fans were cleared to enter the stadium as potential eyewitnesses to the Bucks winning the NBA title for the first time in 50 years
In a nod to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s home country, a Bucks fan waves a Greek flag
Milwaukee Bucks fans make their way into the Deer District before Game 6 of the NBA Finals
Fans at Fiserv Forum are required to wear shirts, but outside, in what is known as the Deer District, attire is less restricted
Justin Holiday (left) and Aaron Holiday of the Indiana Pacers smile before Game 6 of the NBA Finals between their brother Jrue’s Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns
Complimentary T-shirts are left for each fan at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum before Game 6
Fans make their way into the Deer District before Game 6 of the NBA basketball finals game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns Tuesday
Source: Daily Mail