This isn’t some prisoner-of-the-moment hyperbole. A championship is on the line here. This was classical art. This was a timeless song.
The block was so improbable, so unbelievable, it was difficult to process in real time. Slow-motion replays from multiple angles, zoom-ins and wide-lens shots provided a better understanding of what transpired. But the more times Antetokounmpo’s help-spin-and-recovery-block is watched — at whatever speed, angle or size — the only way to truly reckon with the play is with a head-exploding emoji.
“Excuse my language,” Bucks all-star Khris Middleton said, “but it was one of those ‘Oh, [expletive]!’ moments.”
Antetokounmpo called it “just a hustle play,” but that’s like referring to a Bugatti as just a means of transportation. With the Bucks desperately clinging to a two-point lead with roughly 80 seconds remaining, Antetokounmpo first converged with P.J. Tucker to cut off Devin Booker’s driving lane and force a lob pass. Then he anticipated Ayton was behind him elevating for a dunk and pirouetted into position. Later, he propelled himself as if the court were a trampoline and soared high enough to track down the ball. Finally, he placed his hand in the perfect spot to stifle Ayton without fouling.
The number of players capable of executing what Antetokounmpo did is fewer than the syllables in his last name. The sequence required a level of athleticism, basketball IQ, agility and strength that rarely — if ever — finds itself in a 6-foot-11 package. But Antetokounmpo also possessed another quality that best prepared him for those heroics. Although Ayton was higher, Antetokounmpo was a tad crazier.
“I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was late.”
Antetokounmpo wasn’t afraid — to be embarrassed or to fail. He met Ayton at the rim. Now he’s two wins from meeting his first ring.
What made the play more remarkable is that Antetokounmpo launched himself off the same left knee that bent backward only two weeks earlier. His hyperextended knee, which placed the rest of his postseason in doubt, pushed him into championship lore. And for Antetokounmpo to do it in the NBA Finals — where Hall of Fame legacies and legends are cemented — puts the play on another level.
“It's the best block of all time,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “It's about as impressive as you can get.”
The most iconic Finals moments generally involve someone putting the ball in the basket. But in a few instances, standout defensive plays remain the defining moments of classic series — and the game’s legendary figures.
Michael Jordan was able to do both in his memorable closing act with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. With the dynasty on its last legs, facing the possibility of a Game 7 with the shell of Scottie Pippen, Jordan seized the opportunity to snatch his sixth ring. After bringing the Bulls within one with a layup, Jordan stripped Karl Malone from behind with 20 seconds remaining. Jordan then rushed the ball up the court before the defense fully set, nudged Bryon Russell out of the way and struck a pose.
Bill Russell started the Boston Celtics’ dynasty nearly four decades earlier by doing what Jordan achieved in reverse. In the final minute of Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals against the St. Louis Hawks — the team that drafted and traded him the previous summer — Russell made a layup to bring the Celtics within one, then chased down Jack Coleman, slamming the shot against the backboard to keep his team alive in a game it eventually won in double overtime.
Hakeem Olajuwon — a native of Nigeria, where Antetokounmpo’s parents were from — forced a Game 7 on the defensive end during his first title run with the Houston Rockets in 1994. The New York Knicks were down two with 7.6 seconds remaining, and Coach Pat Riley designed a play for John Starks to shoot a go-ahead three-pointer. Patrick Ewing set a screen to free Starks, but Olajuwon switched over and got a fingertip on the shot.
Not every memorable defensive gem resulted in a title. In the first-ever Finals game played in Los Angeles in 1962, Jerry West stole an inbounds pass from Sam Jones and streaked down the floor for a game-winning layup at the buzzer to lead the Lakers to a Game 3 win. The Lakers would eventually lose to the Celtics in seven games.
And not every memorable stop was made by a future Hall of Fame player. Gerald Henderson picked off James Worthy in Game 2 of the 1984 Finals, which Boston won in seven, and Horace Grant secured the Bulls’ first three-peat in 1993 in Game 6 in Phoenix by smacking away Kevin Johnson’s runner at the buzzer.
Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP making his Finals debut, hoping to be among the all-time greats who preceded him with a title. He won the 2020 defensive player of the year award but somehow got criticized because he doesn’t regularly attempt to shut down the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer one-on-one. It’s an odd request of a player who is a tremendous help defender, a forceful rebounder and a fearless rim protector who takes pride in altering shots.
His defensive instincts and the work he has invested to be great at that end prepared him for his Game 4 heroics. The block on Ayton immediately drew comparisons to a more recent historic stop — LeBron James’s chase down of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 NBA Finals, known simply as the Block. James pinned Iguodala’s layup attempt in Game 7 with the score tied, setting up Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead three-pointer to complete a 3-1 comeback for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first title, ending a 52-year championship drought for the city.
“I would look at the criteria of greatest block of all time based on difficulty of the block and then time and score. I think obviously LeBron’s time and score probably has the edge in that situation because of when it was and helped them literally win a championship that game,” Connaughton said. “But I think the difference between the time and score difference and then the difficulty of the block difference gives the edge to Giannis just because a chase-down block, you have a little bit more of an ability to read. And obviously it’s a great block, and we’re talking about two of the greatest blocks of all time, and I don’t want to discredit that block.”
How Antetokounmpo’s block will eventually be regarded depends on the outcome of this series, which is tied at 2-2 with Game 5 set for Saturday in Phoenix. Antetokounmpo wasn’t concerned about where the play would rank, only that it needed to be made. Afterward, he flared his nostrils, stretched out his mandible — Kobe Bryant style — lifted his arms and flexed.
“It’s ‘How bad do you want it?’ ” Antetokounmpo said. “Sometimes I block shots and I run the other way, but I think there was so much emotions into me and I tried to enjoy that moment. I want to enjoy every single moment. It felt good.”