PHOENIX — With three minutes, 49 seconds remaining in Tuesday’s game, Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant rose from the right wing and knocked down a 3-pointer to give his team a 15-point lead. Durant’s 3 inspired Bucks head coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout and it seemed as though it was time for the Bucks to pull their starters from the game.
But following the timeout, Giannis Antetokounmpo was back on the floor for the Bucks.
When Bobby Portis missed a hook shot on the ensuing possession, Antetokounmpo fought for the rebound and drew a foul on Jusuf Nurkić. After making one of two at the free-throw line, Antetokounmpo helped the Bucks stop Devin Booker and then pushed the ball up the floor for a Jae Crowder layup. On the next defensive possession, Crowder forced a turnover against Durant and Antetokounmpo raced up the floor for a dunk to cut the Bucks’ deficit to 10.
The Bucks were unable to make a comeback in the finale of their five-game, 10-day road trip and lost 114-106 to the Suns on Tuesday, but that loss didn’t happen because of a lack of effort.
“Giannis has no pack in,” Rivers said of Antetokounmpo’s lack of willingness to concede anything to opponents. “Even with a minute left, I was probably about to take him off the floor and he’s still flying around.”
On Tuesday, that meant expending energy on the defensive side against one of the league’s most talented offensive trios.
“This is incredible,” Antetokounmpo said of the Suns’ big three. “It’s like what do you want to die from? You want to die from the crocodile, the snake or the hippopotamus? Man, anything you pick, it’s hard.”
Both Damian Lillard (left ankle sprain) and Brook Lopez (personal reasons) were listed as out two hours before tipoff. Halfway through the first quarter, Khris Middleton sprained his left ankle when he landed on Kevin Durant’s foot following a jump shot, which was ruled a flagrant 1 for a reckless closeout. Middleton was ruled out of the game just a few minutes later.
Going up against the Suns’ big three without the other three members of the Bucks’ core four, Antetokounmpo kept fighting and eventually put up 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. And while that effort might have stood out to others watching the game, it was just normal to Antetokounmpo.
“We’re basketball players, NBA players,” Antetokounmpo said. “We still gotta do what we gotta do, play the game, compete, give our all for the team. I think guys responded that way, played hard throughout the whole game. Obviously, you’re playing a very, very talented team, a team that can score the ball any time they want.
“I think we did a good job just mucking up the game, playing hard, moving the ball, taking care of the ball, but again, if you don’t have three of your starters, it just becomes hard. It’s hard on everybody. But you can’t make excuses. Anybody that’s available to play, we’re all NBA players, we’ve worked extremely hard to be here. So we go out there and do it all for the team and sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t.”
Pat Connaughton, who started at point guard for the Bucks on Tuesday, agreed with Antetokounmpo’s assessment but reiterated that the Bucks don’t want any participation awards.
“We have guys that, when they go out there, they want to put their best foot forward, they want to win, and they’ll do it for an entire 48 minutes,” Connaughton said. “And I think that’s part of the DNA, part of the culture that we have.
“And we don’t take moral victories, but that’s the standard that our best players set. The standard Giannis has set, Khris has set, Dame, Brook, you know, Jrue Holiday when he was here, Bobby. The standard is competing. Competing isn’t an option; competing is what we do, and we do it as consistently as we possibly can. day in and day out.“
While the Bucks will certainly wish they could have come away with a victory in Phoenix, one positive to take away from the game was Antetokounmpo’s defense against Durant. For years, there has always been considerable conversation surrounding whether or not Antetokounmpo should cover the opponent’s best wing scorer or work in his normal role as a roaming help defender.
Under Budenholzer, outside of the 2021 first-round series against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, the decision was almost always keeping Antetokounmpo in a helping role. This season, Adrian Griffin made it a priority to give Antetokounmpo more of the top defensive assignments and Rivers kept that up on Tuesday, assigning Durant to Antetokounmpo to start the game.
“We knew him and Jae would be it,” Rivers said of putting Antetokounmpo on Durant. “They have so much offensive firepower, the last thing we needed early was to get KD going, so I thought Giannis was spectacular early. The length, KD probably has Giannis and Victor (Wembanyama). That’s about it that can guard him that matches up in size, so it was good for us.”
While Antetokounmpo does not have a ton of career defensive reps against Durant, he had studied for the assignment and knew the best way to use his length to bother Durant. Watch his positioning on this early Durant jumper:
Rather than staying square to Durant’s shoulders, look at how Antetokounmpo’s body is offset to Durant’s right. Antetokounmpo knows that Durant does not want to go all the way to the basket. Instead, Durant would prefer to pull up for a mid-range jumper, so Antetokounmpo squared up his body with Durant’s right shoulder to ensure that he could contest the pull-up jumper freely without reaching across Durant’s body.
The strategy was even more exaggerated on this possession:
Even when Durant got past Antetokounmpo, the Bucks forward didn’t worry about beating Durant to the rim. Instead, Antetokounmpo made sure he got across Durant’s body to contest the pull-up jumper.
In the end though, no matter how hard the Bucks fought or how well Antetokounmpo defended Durant, there is no ignoring the fact the Bucks with Rivers as their new head coach, won just one of the five games on their 10-day Western Conference road trip. While Antetokounmpo once again reiterated his belief in what the Bucks are doing after Tuesday’s loss, just like he did following Sunday’s loss in Salt Lake City, the Bucks have still lost four of their five games over the last week and a half.
The road will only become tougher as the Bucks determine Middleton’s injury status. Following the game, Rivers told reporters that X-rays were negative, but Middleton still walked out of the arena in a walking boot with the aid of crutches. That visual alone suggests that Middleton will miss some time moving forward.
“How many games to the All-Star break? Five. I’ve played without Khris for a whole season,” Antetokounmpo said. “Five games, it’s OK. He’s going to be fine. Five games, that probably means eight to 10 days, then he has the All-Star break, then he has seven days. So he’s going to have 15 to 17 days. Maybe he can take the first game; he has 20 days.
“We’re going to be fine. He’s going to be back, he’s going to be healthy. He’s going to be back to playing great basketball. We are there to support him but he’s going to be fine. I know Khris.”
Antetokounmpo’s steadfast belief in Middleton and what the Bucks have done in the last week and a half should be comforting for teammates and fans alike. But the Bucks will eventually need to win some games and they’ll need to do it soon as the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference are growing stronger. —
(Photo of Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)