PHOENIX – Running full speed ahead, Giannis Antetokounmpo chased after Mikal Bridges and then shot up to hit the Phoenix forward’s fast break layup on the backboard and negate what seemed like two easy points for the Suns.
The two-time league MVP wasted no time proving he’s healthy enough to play – and possibly dominate – in the NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo’s presence did not lead to a victory for the Bucks Tuesday night, but it did serve as a warning that he is likely to have a major impact on the series. He finished with 20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes after missing two games in the Eastern Conference final on a hyperextended knee.
“Obviously I’m trying not to do it on myself, but it felt great,” Antetokounmpo said. “The medical staff allowed me to play. There, I had the balance. I felt that my knee was stable. I did not feel pain. I felt good.”
And it looked good.
It was a surprise starter in Game 1, a seemingly questionable move, but the Bucks’ first offensive play in the game was a lob to Antetokounmpo that resulted in a pair of free throws. Antetokounmp used a Euro-step to avoid the defenders on a move to the basket and threw a pair of dunks from the baseline in the first half; he had a double-double early in the third quarter.
Antetokounmpo rested during time-outs, often with a towel over his shoulders, and never seemed to need any special treatment. He worked out on the court before Tuesday night’s 118-105 loss and showed Bucks officials that he was ready to play after being offside with a left knee injury.
“I don’t think he’s completely 100%,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “But he’s close to it.”
A reminder that Antetokounmpo is not an indestructible robot came during the post-game interviews. Cautiously he stepped onto the podium to answer questions and then carefully descended.
The 26-year-old is known for not caring about injuries. He repeatedly insisted that his medical situation was not a problem, although he admits that his initial reaction to the injury was “I’m going to be out for a year” and that his knee swelled up to twice its normal size.
He said the effort to get his knee ready for Tuesday was a 24-hour process complete with treatment, weight lifting, getting on the court, pool sessions and keeping the knee elevated.
“I’m trying my best not to do it because of my knee,” Antetokounmpo said. “I felt good on my knee. Obviously, when you go to play a game, you never know what is going to happen. I am happy to be out there and to be able to help my team in any way possible and participate in my first Finals of the League. NBA. I’m just trying to focus on that and not on whether my knee hurts. “
There will be great interest in how Antetokounmpo’s knee feels on Wednesday, but it would be unwise to rule him out of Game 2.
He ran onto the court Tuesday about two hours before the warning with a large pair of headphones on his head. The athletic 6-foot-11 forward got down to business right away, dribbling dribbles down the sideline and then taking shots from 3-point range.
“I think Giannis played well. I feel like when you stay out 3 or 4 games, maybe it’s a little difficult to get to the first game of the final and really put on a show like he would, but I think he played well,” said the Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He looked good. His body looked good.”
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Budenholzer said before the game that he was confident his star could make a significant contribution, even if he couldn’t score as much as usual.
Entering the final, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the postseason.
The Bucks had listed Antetokounpmo as doubtful on Monday, but raised him to questionable early Tuesday. Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said Antetokounmpo went through team shooting practice Tuesday and the expectation was that he would play.
Antetokounmpo was injured in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals when he landed after jumping up to defend a fly ball to Atlanta’s Clint Capela. He missed the last two games of that series.
Budenholzer said Monday that Antetokounmpo was working the court and making progress, but did not provide further details.
It turns out that the forward was much more advanced in terms of health than many expected. That’s good news for a Milwaukee team trying to win its second title and its first since 1971.