On Sunday, though, Antetokounmpo returned home and looked more like himself, this time decorating his dominance with his trademark passion. Late in the third quarter, with Milwaukee on its way to a 120-100 win over the Suns in Game 3, Antetokounmpo lifted a high layup off the glass while absorbing contact. He celebrated by pumping his fist and curling his lip in a menacing way that showed that not only was he still in command, but he was finally comfortable in this series.
“I’m happy that I’m able to be out there,” Antetokounmpo said about recovering from the knee injury he suffered during the Eastern Conference finals. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter the outcome. I feel like everybody has worked hard to be in this moment. … I was happy to come back and enjoy and play with my teammates.”
Antetokounmpo finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, and as he did on that illustrative play — making his free throw — he stepped to the line all night without hearing a sped-up timer from mocking fans. Instead, he was serenaded with chants of “M-V-P.” By no coincidence, he made 13 of 17 free throws, his best mark of the Finals.
Following their leader, the Bucks looked lively on their home court at Fiserv Forum. Guard Jrue Holiday scored 21 points and gave the Bucks a pulse from long distance, hitting 5 of 10 from beyond the three-point arc. When the shots weren’t falling from downtown, Milwaukee could still get inside, and it outscored Phoenix 54-40 in the paint. Just as aggressive on the other end, the Bucks turned the Suns’ best scorer into a pedestrian. Devin Booker scored only 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting in 29 minutes; he spent most of the fourth quarter watching the blowout.
“This group’s just about getting better, improving, learning, and hopefully we did that in-game and there’s some things, you know, you just can’t relax on any of that,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You can’t relax on keeping guys off the free throw line. You can’t relax on attacking and getting to the paint. You can’t relax in transition defense.”
Sending different defenders toward Booker and making him hesitate was a well-executed scheme. Teams in the NBA Finals should have a plan, and Milwaukee has implemented several — relying on defensive switches in Game 1, then doubling more in Game 2 — but the Bucks also have tried to embrace the randomness of basketball, harnessing it and trying to use it in their favor.
Before Game 2, Budenholzer was shown on the broadcast telling his players to “play random.” Such encouragement became an easy target for postgame criticism after the Bucks lost. On Sunday, Budenholzer didn’t shy away from his philosophy: “You just don’t know how it’s going to happen, and the randomness makes sport beautiful,” he said. Throughout the first half, Milwaukee reveled in those scattered and fluky moments and created basketball artistry.
Even though Milwaukee’s shooters wobbled from the three-point arc, making only 5 of 18 attempts in the first half before finishing 14 for 36, one particularly errant jack from center Brook Lopez missed so badly that forward P.J. Tucker was the only one in position to save the ball from going out of bounds. And it just so happened that Antetokounmpo was thundering down the lane at the same time and arrived at his launchpad for a dunk just as Tucker sent in the pass.
And speaking of the Bucks’ indispensable forward, Tucker could write tutorials on randomness with his hustling style of play. Four minutes before halftime, the Bucks went smaller and moved Tucker to the five, matching him up against Suns center Frank Kaminsky on one end and having him defend Booker on the other. Tucker harassed Booker on the perimeter and forced him to get rid of the ball, allowing a teammate to take and miss a shot. Antetokounmpo, unstoppable again while out in space, collected the rebound and pushed the ball for a one-man fast break.
But during the Bucks’ game-changing 29-9 run to end the half, their greatest unplanned moment happened without Antetokounmpo. While the two-time MVP has shown up in these Finals, his most relied upon teammates have looked cautious and lifeless. That changed Sunday.
Holiday, using his size and tenacity at the guard spot, played a big factor in silencing Booker. With less than two minutes to play until halftime, Holiday stuffed Booker’s layup attempt and started a fast break, sending a behind-the-back pass to forward Khris Middleton. When the ball returned back to the middle of the floor, Holiday dropped off a dime to fan favorite Bobby Portis for a slam — turning stand-up defense into random razzle-dazzle.
“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,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well tonight, especially in the second and third quarters. The turnovers certainly hurt us, points in the paint, everything we have been talking about the whole series. So it was a tough lesson for us to learn.”