NBA Finals notebook: Giannis is fulfilling Shaq's prophecy

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When Giannis Antetokounmpo was still at the very beginning of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks back in 2015, a clip went viral after Sacramento Kings forward Reggie Evans found out Antetokounmpo was only 20 years old and was completely befuddled:

Even before he became an All-NBA talent and a two-time Most Valuable Player, Antetokounmpo left the opposition shaking their heads. If you look at the clip today, it seems improbable that the scrawny forward in the video would become an unstoppable physical force leading his team in the NBA Finals.

Antetokounmpo followed up his 42-point, 12-rebound performance in Game 2 with 41 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists in 38 minutes in a convincing 120-100 Game 3 win at home on Sunday. What he has done in these Finals so far has been historic and also improbable, considering we’re just two weeks removed from Antetokounmpo suffering a horrifying knee injury in Atlanta where he appeared to have not only ended his postseason run, but would be out for all of next season.

Instead, he was back for Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns and just became the second player ever to have back-to-back 40-plus point, 10-plus rebound games in the Finals. The other player who accomplished this remarkable feat was Shaquille O’Neal during his three-peat with the Los Angeles Lakers.

A few years ago, I had a chance to interview O’Neal for a story. When I asked if any current player reminded him of himself, O’Neal immediately named Antetokounmpo. You could see the reasoning for the comparison at the time. While he was still developing as a basketball player, Antetokounmpo had the size and strength that could one day turn him into a dominant big man. But it also felt like a reach at the time. Milwaukee didn’t even know what position they wanted to play him. For a time, head coach Jason Kidd experimented with their franchise player at point guard.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is off to a historic start in his first NBA Finals. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is off to a historic start in his first NBA Finals. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Flash forward to present day, and the Shaq comparisons are spot on. Throughout these playoffs, Antetokounmpo has been knocked by pundits for not having an effective offensive game. He has been called a sidekick — a superstar not capable of being the No. 1 option for a championship team. On Sunday, all he did was carry his team from the brink of elimination once again, dominating the Suns’ frontcourt and imposing his will on the game on every possession. Who needs an aesthetically pleasing game when you can just back your defenders down in the low post and dunk over them, again and again?

Of course, no great player can win a championship by themselves. O’Neal had Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and Dwyane Wade in Miami. LeBron James had Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles. The Bucks also won Game 3 because their other two stars — who struggled mightily on offense in the first two losses in Phoenix — showed up. Khris Middleton had 18 points and pitched in seven rebounds and six assists. Jrue Holiday snapped out of his shooting slump with 21 points and five three-pointers, including three crucial makes from beyond the arc in the third quarter when the Suns fought back to cut the lead to single digits.

The Suns haven’t put up too many stinkers in these playoffs, so expect a bounce-back performance from them in Game 4 on Wednesday. But if Antetokounmpo continues to dominate and put up historic numbers, with just enough help from his teammates, he just might be able to carry the Bucks across the finish line.

If Reggie Evans is still wondering, by the way, Antetokounmpo is only 26 today.

A few other thoughts from Game 3 of the NBA Finals

Shoutout to Cam Johnson for the dunk of the year. I’ll need to think about it more, but this has to be on the pantheon of all-time dunks in NBA Finals history. My favourite part of the play was P.J. Tucker’s incredulous reaction and the subsequent replay review to determine whether Johnson actually committed an offensive foul. He didn’t. But even if the play was overturned, the dunk would have still unofficially stood as an all-time play.

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Devin Booker got off to another slow start in Game 3 and ended the night with just 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in 29 minutes. The minutes total was on the low end as head coach Monty Williams decided to keep his star on the bench in the fourth quarter as the game got out of reach. The poor shooting is threatening to become a trend in this series for Booker. Deandre Ayton had four fouls just a minute into the third quarter. Mikal Bridges gave the Suns four points in 27 minutes. It was a tough night for several of the Suns’ starters.

There’s no reason to panic yet. Phoenix has won all three Game 4s in these playoffs so far. The key to getting back on track will be Ayton, who was awesome in the first half but faded as the game went on. If the Bucks — and Antetokounmpo in particular — can get him in foul trouble again in Game 4, then the Suns will have a problem on their hands. They lost Dario Saric to a season-ending ACL injury in Game 1 and watched Frank Kaminsky put up a minus-13 in his first five minutes of action last night. If that trend continues on Wednesday, we’ll be headed back to Phoenix with the series tied at two.

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