Giannis Antetokounmpo never thought he would return so soon. In fact, when he was injured against the Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals last week, he didn’t think he’d play again until next season.
After looking close to full strength while scoring 20 points with 18 rebounds in the Bucks’ 118-105 loss to the Suns in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night in Phoenix, Antetokounmpo revealed he thought the worst after the crashed to the court, twisting his leg. As it turned out, “The Greek Freak’’ only missed two contests — Games 5 and 6 versus the Hawks, both Milwaukee victories.
“I’m happy that I’m out there,’’ Antetokounmpo said, in his first public comments since he hyperextended his left knee. “At the end of the day, I haven’t watched the clip [of the injury], but when the play happened, I thought I’m going to be out for a year. I’m just happy that two games later, I’m back.
“I thought I hurt everything in my knee. I thought, ‘I’m gone.’ Just being able to be on the bench [against Atlanta] and not be on a cold table getting surgery and supporting those guys, watching the game and walking around and sharing with them, you always got to find the positive things in everything you go through. I was happy they were able to get the job done [in beating the Hawks].’’
Antetokounmpo missed the last two games of the East finals and figured to be out Tuesday when the Bucks listed him as doubtful on the eve of The Finals. But he worked “24 hours a day’’ to get back, and he played with gusto and athleticism.
“It was tough but I did my best to get back, did the right treatment and took care of my body,’’ he said. “I felt great. The medical staff let me play. I felt I had my balance. My knee was stable. I didn’t feel pain.’’
Even as he had a solid outing, Antetokounmpo did grab at his knee at one juncture in the second half. Otherwise, effects of the injury weren’t noticeable, and Antetokounmpo downplayed it.
He skied for an alley-oop pass on Milwaukee’s first possession. Though it got broken up, he was fouled on the play and went to the free-throw line. He lived down to his free-throw reputation by badly missing the first attempt with the crowd counting to 10 — as Nets fans had during the second-round series.
Antetokounmpo wound up with 10 points, five rebounds and three assists by intermission, attacking the rim with abandon. He also had a sensational block in the final minute of the half, racing back to bat off the glass what looked to be an uncontested fast-break layup attempt by Mikal Bridges. Antetokounmpo also committed goaltending on a Devin Booker shot, leaping well above the rim.
Even 90 minutes before tip-off, the Bucks wouldn’t let the media in on Antetokounmpo’s return, which wasn’t revealed until shortly before tip-off.
“He had a good workout before the game,’’ Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think you’ve got to listen to Giannis first. He felt good. The Sports Performance Group felt good, he had been checking boxes the last couple days and making progress and so he was cleared. And he wanted to go and everybody was on the same page. It’s just a credit to him. For him to be back playing in Game 1, it’s really impressive what he did.’’
And it at least hints at the promise of a better Game 2 result for Milwaukee.
“He’s a rhythm guy,’’ Budenholzer said. “So, I’m excited about how he’ll improve from Game 1 to Game 2.’’
Ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy is calling his 13th straight NBA Finals for ABC after spending the weekend in Las Vegas with the U.S. Olympic coaching staff as their director of scouting. Van Gundy will join Team USA after The Finals and be in Tokyo, though is not considered an assistant coach. Head coach Gregg Popovich’s assistants are Steve Kerr, Jay Wright and Lloyd Pierce.