About eight hours before Game 1 of the NBA Finals went to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo knew something everyone else didn’t: He would be in the starting lineup for the Milwaukee Bucks.
“It felt great,” said Antetokounmpo, who missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals because of a hyperextended left knee. “Out there I had my balance. Felt my knee was stable. Did not feel pain. I felt good.”
Unlike teammates who joked they’d seen video of the play on which he got hurt against the Atlanta Hawks hundreds of times, Antetokounmpo said he still hasn’t seen the highlight.
“When the play happened, I thought I was going to be out for a year,” he said. “… I’m participating right now, that’s what’s important. At the end of the day, you’ve got to find the positive things in everything you do in order to move forward.”
In a dramatic return marking the end of a six-day recovery, an aggressive Antetokounmpo played 35 minutes Tuesday and scored 20 points with 17 rebounds in Milwaukee’s 118-105 loss.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks nearly flamed out in the third quarter, for stretches appearing to be gassed as the Suns sprinted to an advantage that grew as high as 20 points.
“I think Giannis played well. When you sit out (multiple) games, it’s maybe a little tough to come to the Finals and put on the show,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said, adding that Antetokounmpo went through shootaround earlier in the day as if he were planning to start.
Limited to non-aerobic exercise the past week, Antetokounmpo might be short on stamina for another game or more. How he feels physically on Wednesday potentially becomes the new vital storyline for Game 2 on Thursday.
“He was cleared. He wanted to go. Everybody was on the same page,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I thought there were a lot of good things considering what he’s been through these last five, six, seven days. It usually takes him playing. He’s a rhythm guy. He always gets better when he plays.”
Budenholzer said the Bucks mapped a plan for Antetokounmpo prior to the game. It did not include playing 35-plus minutes. Antetokounmpo said he spent 24 hours a day focused on his knee with pool sessions, treatment, elevating and ice and reducing swelling.
The Bucks shifted with feedback from Antetokounmpo and a decision at halftime to use him more at the “5” with a small lineup to matchup with Phoenix’s guard- and wing-heavy lineup.
Antetokounmpo remains long on belief in the Bucks, who also lost the first game of the Eastern Conference finals and are 1-5 in their past six playoff series openers.
“I’m going to say one more time — my knee felt good,” Antetokounmpo said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just happy to be out there, participating in my first NBA Finals. At the end of the day, I’m out there. I feel good. I don’t feel pain. I can run, I can jump. I’m good. I’m happy.”
Listed as doubtful entering Tuesday’s pregame, Antetokounmpo was upgraded to questionable eight hours before tipoff in the first signal the former back-to-back MVP would be on the floor in the opener of the best-of-seven series.
Two hours before the game, Antetokounmpo worked first on the sideline in front of trainers with a white compression sleeve stretching from his lower quad to his upper calf. He shuffled in every direction, testing his left leg’s pogo stick qualities, then juked and dribbled left and right, forward and back.
The 6-foot-11, 245-pounder nodded and smiled as he rejoined teammates, another clear tell he was all systems go.
All of the trademark “Freak” traits were on display Tuesday.
Antetokounmpo whizzed past Phoenix forward Jae Crowder with a lightning first step and sailed through the air for a dunk in the first quarter. He didn’t hesitate to attack a double team on the next possession, splicing into the lane with a no-look assist to Pat Connaughton.
After finishing a near dunk over Suns center DeAndre Ayton — showing no signs of concern for his landing gear or tweaked left knee — he skied from just inside the free-throw line for a defensive rebound on the other end, his fourth in the first quarter, clutching the ball over three collapsing Suns.
On one staggering defensive recovery in the second quarter, Antetokounmpo made up 15 feet in two massive strides while trailing streaking Suns forward Mikal Bridges through the lane. As Bridges elevated for a right-hand layup on the right side of the rim, he evaded Khris Middleton only to see Antetokounmpo jump off of his left leg and toward the rim, crashing down to erase the shot and keep the Bucks’ halftime deficit at eight, 57-49.
“I think he looked pretty good tonight, looked like his normal self — jumping, running, sprinting,” Middleton said.
“We know he’s giving it his all. … He found a way to get over it. I don’t think he’s fully 100 percent, but he’s close to it.”
Antetokounmpo, 26, was hailed by teammates, trainers and coaches for his “prehab” workout routine that helped him recover quickly.
“It’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to do over the past five or six days,” Budenholzer said. “He’s worked hard with our sports performance team. He’s in a good place.”
The Bucks opened the game with a set play lob pass to Antetokounmpo. It didn’t go down, but the statement was delivered for what appears destined to be an extended series.
“I can’t predict the future,” Antetokounmpo said. “I might wake up tomorrow with my knee swollen. Hopefully Game 2 I feel better.”
–Field Level Media