MILWAUKEE — The Phoenix Suns took control of the NBA Finals by surging ahead in the final five minutes of the first half of Games 1 and 2 at home. On Sunday night, the Milwaukee Bucks began to climb back into the best-of-seven affair by giving the Suns a taste of their own medicine in Game 3.
Fueled by a pair of scorching runs to end the second and third quarters — 16-3 over the final 4:52 of the second, and 24-6 over the final 5:03 of the third — the Bucks cruised to a 120-100 victory at home, cutting their series deficit to 2-1 ahead of Game 4 on Wednesday night.
“We just had to play better defense, that’s all,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was utterly dominant for a second straight game, finishing with 41 points — including a personal 7-0 second-quarter run that put Milwaukee ahead for good — to go with 13 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes. “Play better defense and rebound the ball better and open and run. Create driving lanes.
“Create space for Jrue [Holiday] to operate, to get downhill, to get to the spots, to play one-on-one game, to make the right play.”
Since falling behind 2-0 Thursday night in Phoenix, the Bucks had spent the previous three days looking and sounding as relaxed as any group could be in that position. They pointed to their surviving the same situation down 2-0 against the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Antetokounmpo began his post-practice news conference on Saturday impersonating Marshawn Lynch.
Still, the Bucks found themselves trailing 36-30 on Sunday early in the second quarter, when a jumper from Suns guard Cameron Payne forced Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to call a timeout, sending a nervous energy flooding through the crowd of more than 16,000 who sold out Fiserv Forum and the additional 25,000 people crammed into the Deer District outside the arena.
Things immediately flipped back into Milwaukee’s favor. The Bucks closed the first half on a 30-9 run to reclaim the lead for good — a run that was kicked off by Antetokounmpo getting a dunk, an and-1 bucket and a layup in a 58-second span to push Milwaukee back in front midway through the second quarter.
It was just one of many dominant portions of the contest from Antetokounmpo, who simply got whatever he wanted in both Games 2 and 3 after feeling his way back into action with 20 points and 17 rebounds in Game 1 — a week after he hyperextended his left knee in an ugly fall in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Atlanta Hawks.
“I just think whoever gave him nickname the Greek Freak did a great job of that, for real,” said Milwaukee center Bobby Portis, who had 11 points in 18 minutes off the bench on Sunday after hardly playing in Game 2. “It’s different how he’s playing out there and doing all these different things and just being himself. I’m saying, that’s just rare.”
In particular, Antetokounmpo was able to dominate inside during Game 3, as all 14 of his made field goals came within 5 feet of the basket — making him the only player in the past 25 years to score at least 30 points without making a shot outside of 5 feet, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I just read each possession at a time,” Antetokounmpo said. “Sometimes, I’m going to be aggressive for two minutes straight. Sometimes, I’m not. Because the ball is not in my hands because Khris [Middleton] is being aggressive at that time or Jrue.
“Each possession, each time of the game, it’s different. I’m not planning what I do. I’m just trying to be out there, trying to take it a possession at a time, try to enjoy the game, try to make the right play.”
But the notable thing about Milwaukee’s push to end the first half is that Antetokounmpo, after getting virtually no help in Game 2, mostly watched his teammates do the damage. Of the final 16 points Milwaukee had to close the first half, only two of them came from the two-time MVP.
“When [Giannis] rolling sometimes, like he was these last two games, you’ve just got to give him the ball, give him his space and allow him to go to work,” Middleton said.
“At the same time, we both know what we can do. He knows what we can do. He trusts us with the ball in our hands … as long as we play together, we know we’ve got the best chance.”
With that second-quarter surge, the Bucks carried forward the formula that had defined the opening two games of this series — only in reverse. In Game 1, the score was tied at the five-minute mark, only for the Suns to close the first half with a 12-4 run and take a lead they would never relinquish. It was a similar story in Game 2, when Phoenix went from being tied at 41 with 4:53 to go in the second quarter to leading 56-45 at the break thanks to a 15-4 run to close the first half.
In both games in Phoenix, the Bucks never got back in front, spending the entire second half clawing their way back in to no avail. The Suns wound up doing the same in Game 3.
Like Milwaukee in Game 2, when Antetokounmpo came out of the halftime break on a mission to drag his team back into the proceedings, the Suns fought back to within 74-70 on a Cameron Johnson 3-pointer with 5:22 to go in Sunday’s third quarter. And once again, when it seemed like Milwaukee was on the ropes, the Bucks turned on the afterburners.
This time, it was a combination of Antetokounmpo and Holiday, who either scored or assisted on 22 of Milwaukee’s 24 points over the final 5:03 of the third quarter. The run was jump-started by Holiday — who had been the focus of much discussion over the previous 72 hours after two miserable offensive performances in Phoenix — when he hit arguably the biggest shots of Game 3 by drilling back-to-back 3-pointers.
“I think just taking what the defense presented to us,” said Holiday, who had 21 points and nine assists. “They kind of went to that zone, and sometimes in a zone you get a lot of wide-open 3s, and we took those chances or we took those shots and made them.
“But it was definitely a team effort believing in ourselves, like Khris said, making the right plays, the easy early pass, and being able to go out there and have fun and play our game.”
The run was capped by Antetokounmpo hitting Pat Connaughton for a 3-pointer to close the third quarter, which made the score 98-74, deeming the final 12 minutes of Game 3 a formality and setting off celebrations in Milwaukee as the Bucks claimed their first Finals victory in 47 years.
Now the focus shifts to Wednesday, when the Bucks will hope to get another win and turn the Finals into a best-of-three showdown for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“I think this group is just about getting better, improving, learning,” Budenholzer said. “This group finds a way to win and finds a way to get better.”
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