Exactly three weeks after suffering a knee injury that appeared to put his future in doubt, Giannis Antetokounmpo carried the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in half a century.
The Greek Freak delivered perhaps the best performance of his career at the best possible moment and now can add an NBA Finals MVP award to his two regular-season MVP trophies. 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 collecting 50 points, 14 reounds and five blocks in a 105-98 Game 6 victory Tuesday night over Phoenix. He had 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.
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.
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 Antetokounmpko’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.