Here was the efficient, dominant and vintage Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The Greek Freak” made a host of highlight plays befitting his stature as arguably the game’s most gifted player. The 6-foot-11 flying machine soared to the rim for dunks and slammed home a handful of lobs on the way to 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting Sunday as the Bucks toppled the Nets 107-96 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
He attacked the rim in transition and didn’t settle for his wayward 3-point shot. (He made his first one before clanking his next four.)
In his highlight moment, Antetokounmpo cut baseline and received a bounce pass from Jrue Holiday. Antetokounmpo rose and dunked on Blake Griffin, flexing his muscles to the crowd.
But with all that, the game’s biggest play he was involved in came when Antetokounmpo moved toward Kyrie Irving as the Nets guard was already in the air, laying the ball in.
Irving landed on Antetokounmpo’s foot, his ankle twisting horrifically. Irving fell to the floor, grimaced and pounded the hardwood. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, ran up-court with play continuing before the whistle blew and Irving left the game for good. Reportedly in a walking boot after the game, Irving’s return to the series is in doubt.
Antetokounmpo was not called for a foul, but ABC’s Jalen Rose said the NBA should give him a flagrant foul retroactively for not moving out from underneath Irving — a cardinal NBA sin.
If Irving is out the rest of the series and the Bucks win, his injury will stand as a history-changing moment. Antetokounmpo was involved in another history-altering event in New York basketball in 2018, when Kristaps Porzingis dunked over Antetokounmpo and landed awkwardly, tearing his ACL and never playing another game for the Knicks.
Because a fire alarm went off at Fiserv Forum following the contest, the Bucks superstar was not made available for comment on Zoom.
In his interview with ABC after the game, Antetokounmpo said of the play: “I don’t know — I thought he got hit in the groin at first. He went back to the locker room. They said it was a sprained ankle. I hope he’ll be back for Game 5, but we got to keep focusing on ourselves.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said he didn’t know about how Irving got hurt.
“I have not seen the film,’’ he said. “I have no idea what happened on Kyrie’s injury. I think I know it’s a twisted ankle.’’
Asked if he thought Antetokounmpo undercut Irving, Nets center Jeff Green said, “I’m not gonna sit here and say he did [that] whatever happened, it happened on purpose. I think it’s just something that happens throughout basketball.’’
If Antetokounmpo still has the outside shooting yips, it wasn’t as egregious Sunday. That’s because he shot less from beyond the 3-point stripe. He went 1-for-5 from 3 after going 1-for-8 on Friday to continue his disastrous 3-point shooting in these playoffs.
He’s shooting 13 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs after going 30 percent in the regular season.
“Giannis set the tone,’’ Budenholzer said. “Giannis had two good games since we got home. I think his participating in the ball movement, either initiating or finishing it, he’s just got to continue to make good decisions.’’
He mustered three assists Sunday, but could had more as he often flew down the lane and made a back pass to initiate open shots for others.
“Giannis is Giannis,’’ Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton said. “I can say, ‘Beast.’ I can say, ‘MVP.’ I can say a lot of things. But he’s Giannis. As his knowledge has continued to grow the last few years, what I’ve seen there’s a lot of ways he can get to the basket and understanding how defenses have played him is the greatest step forward I’ve seen him take. A lot of times he made the right pass and we didn’t knock down shots for him.’’
Antetokounmpo was a disaster in Game 2, scoring 18 points and not making a shot outside the paint. In Game 3, he improved to 33 points, but was a hideous 1-for-8 from 3-point range and couldn’t knock down free throws (4-for-9), shooting an airball and being flagged for a 10-second violation from the line.
On Sunday, he released more quickly on his free throws but still didn’t make enough, going 5-for-10. He’s still not out of the woods. Now desperate and depleted, the Nets haven’t employed a strategy to send Antetokounmpo to line more. Not yet.