Milwaukee hadn’t seen a game this big in almost 50 years. The Bucks and Giannis Antetokounpo responded with a gut-check performance for the ages.
Sunday’s NBA Finals Game 3 was essentially a must-win for Milwaukee, and the Bucks went out and seized it. Or more to the point, bullied the Suns and took it.
Between Antetokounmpo’s dominance on one end and withering defense on the other, Milwaukee cruised to a 120-100 rout of Phoenix in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 16,637 at Fiserv Forum. And the home team made the NBA Finals a series.
Antetokounmpo poured in 41 points, the second straight game he’s cracked 40. And Milwaukee held the Suns to 9 of 31 shooting from 3-point range, and Devin Booker to 10 points on 3 of 14 from the floor.
“There’s no excuses. We know what kind of game this was going to be. We knew that if we lose the game, you’re in the hole 3-0. … We knew we had to come here and play great basketball, so I knew that,” Antetokounmpo said. “We come on Sunday ready to play for 48 minutes and do whatever it takes to win the game.”
The Bucks did whatever it took, which was largely physically taking the fight to the Suns.
The Greek Freak attacked the rim mercilessly, grabbing 13 boards and getting downhill to draw fouls. He shot 13 of 17 from the free-throw line, taking his Achilles’ heel and kicking the Suns with it.
The Bucks closed the first half on a 30-9 run, including the last 10 points, going into the locker room with a 15-point edge. And another 16-0 run to close the third quarter made it 98-76 going into the fourth.
“There’s a lot of ways you can spin it, but they played with a great deal of aggression for longer stretches than we did. We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well, especially in the second and third quarters,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, who pulled Booker and sat with his arm around his star for a long talk.
“Just talking to him about the game, the kind of force we have to play with. Just normal stuff. This is one of those games that you typically, in NBA speak, say flush it. But you can’t in the Finals. We got to watch the film and learn and get back to playing our kind of basketball consistently.”
The Greek Freak became just the sixth man with back-to-back 40-point games in the Finals, joining Rick Barry, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry West.
“I’m not Michael Jordan,” Antetokounmpo said. “But all I care about right now, it’s getting one more, that’s all. Just take care of business, doing our job.”
Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton finally did theirs. Holiday had 21 points and nine assists, while Middleton finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“When guys make shots, it just makes it tough on the opposing team because now [Antetokounmpo] is just playing one-on-one, and good luck with that. For real, for real,” Bobby Portis said.
The Bucks were down 36-30 before Mike Budenholzerr called a timeout. Whatever he said worked, sparking a 14-2 run. Antetokounmpo scored the last seven straight for Milwaukee, his cutting layup putting them ahead 44-38.
Milwaukee was still clinging to a modest 50-45 lead with three minutes left in the half. But the Bucks tightened the screws defensively, forcing the Suns to miss their last seven shots.
The Suns did crawl within four in the third quarter, but as soon as Chris Paul took a breather, the Bucks pounced. Clinging to an 82-76 lead with 3:43 in the third, they blew it open with a 16-0 run that started and ended with Pat Connaughton 3s.
The latter pushed the lead to 22 after three quarters. Booker sat the entire fourth as it reached 25, fittingly on an Antetokounmpo dunk.
“No doubt about it we feel like we lost the 50/50 battle, and on the road you almost have to win that or tie it. So that decided the game in a way for us, and we have to be better in that aspect,” Jae Crowder said.
“Just regroup, refocus, go over film and respond. We’re on the road and we have to come in with the energy and effort,” Booker said. “The 50/50 balls, the offensive rebounds, protect the paint — just the details that we talked about. But that’s what the playoffs is. That’s why it’s a series, and we have some room for improvement.”