With his team’s season on the line, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo entered Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with a clear goal in mind: to attack every chance he could.
After so much of this series has been dominated by chatter about his wayward jump shot, Antetokounmpo ensured Milwaukee would survive and force a Game 7 on Saturday night in Brooklyn by relentlessly forcing his way to the rim.
The result? Milwaukee cruised to a 104-89 victory, while Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and three assists in 41 minutes — all while not taking a single 3-point shot.
“That was just how it went,” Antetokounmpo said. “I didn’t shoot a 3 tonight, but I’m just trying to be aggressive. Get downhill, make the right play, I think there was maybe one or two plays I was open at the 3-point line and maybe could have shot it.
“But what I know is that I enjoy the game when I’m aggressive, and I can get downhill and I can get my teammates involved, and when I play to my strengths. That’s when I enjoy the game the most, and that’s what I try to do.”
It’s certainly what he did in Game 6 — and, for the Bucks, with great results. Of Antetokounmpo’s 12 field goals Thursday night, 11 came in the paint, and 10 were in the restricted area, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. His average field goal distance of 5.6 feet was his lowest of this postseason.
“Giannis coming into the game was in a good place,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Just get him where he’s attacking and creating for his teammates, creating for himself. He came in today in a good place, and we’ve got to stay there going into Game 7.”
Antetokounmpo’s mindset was indicative of the approach the Bucks collectively brought to this elimination game. Budenholzer leaned heavily on his stars, essentially playing a six-man rotation until both teams emptied their benches for the final few minutes. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton (38 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five steals) and Jrue Holiday (21 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four steals) combined to equal Brooklyn’s 89 points by themselves. Milwaukee dominated in transition, outscoring Brooklyn 26-4 in fast-break points, and the Bucks shot twice as many free throws as the Nets.
Add it all up, and the Bucks were able to continue the trend of both teams winning their home games in this series, ensuring it would have a winner-take-all showdown at Barclays Center 48 hours later.
“We didn’t look like we had a ton of energy all night,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “I think we wanted it. We just couldn’t find it. And when you can’t find that rhythm, it makes it even harder, and so it’s kind of chicken-and-the-egg. Is the rhythm because you don’t have the energy, or is it compounded because you don’t have a rhythm?
“It was just not our best game. We didn’t play well. … It’s now about how we respond.”
The Bucks set the tone for how the game would go right from the opening tip. Antetokounmpo opened the game with a layup to give Milwaukee a lead it would never relinquish in claiming a wire-to-wire victory. He kept on attacking, scoring seven points as part of an 18-5 run that gave Milwaukee an immediate cushion and helped wipe away some of the rough memories from Brooklyn’s comeback from a 16-point deficit to claim Game 5.
Brooklyn periodically made pushes to get back into the game, and only in those final moments when both benches emptied did the game feel truly over, especially given the Nets had Kevin Durant at their disposal.
But while Durant still led Brooklyn with 32 points Thursday night, it took him 30 shots to do it, a far cry from the scintillating 49 points on 16-for-23 shooting he put up for the Nets in their stunning Game 5 victory.
“I wasn’t even trying to duplicate [Game 5],” Durant said. “I was just trying to go out there and play each possession. I’m not trying to be a hero out there. I know I can’t win a basketball game by myself, so I just try to play the right way, take the shots that are there. A few of them I felt like I rushed just trying to get us back into the flow and switch the momentum a little bit, but for the most part I thought I was aggressive and put pressure on the defense.
“I’ve gotta keep the ball in my hands a little bit more, but being aggressive is always positive for us, especially when I’m going downhill. I try not to duplicate huge nights like that. Just trying to let the game flow and tonight wasn’t our night.”
While several Bucks took their turns trying to slow the all-world forward down, it was P.J. Tucker who once again drew the primary assignment. And while he finished with only three points on 1-for-6 shooting, Tucker was a game-high plus-30, doing both an excellent job giving Durant all he could handle while also making several crucial hustle plays to extend possessions.
“Listen, Kevin Durant is maybe the best scorer of our generation,” Tucker said. “He’s gonna score the ball a lot. Everybody knows that. I don’t know why people act like that’s a surprise. He’s a tall task for anybody. I don’t think anybody can shut him down.
“But what you can do is try to make him work.”
Beyond Durant’s heroics, the other story from Game 5 was James Harden’s surprising return from the hamstring injury he suffered at the start of Game 1. And while he still didn’t look like the player he typically is, he was more involved and effective in Game 6, scoring 16 points, including 14 in the first half, to go along with five rebounds, seven assists and four steals in 40 minutes.
“It’s not even about rust,” Harden said. “It’s about being able to move, and I think as I go day by day, [I] continue to get better.
“The last game, Game 5, was the first day that I did any movement like that since I got hurt, so tonight was no different, you know? I’m out there to do whatever it takes to win. I’ve got to be better on both ends of the ball, which I will be in Game 7.”
Milwaukee’s goal entering Thursday night was to simply make sure that Game 7 took place. And, after the disappointment the Bucks felt after letting Game 5 slip away, Antetokounmpo made sure he set the tone and led his team into Saturday’s showdown in Brooklyn.
Now that the Bucks have made it that far, he said, they’ll be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
“We knew what kind of game this was, and there was only one option: Win the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “We knew if we didn’t win the game, our season would be over, and we’ve talked about it multiple times in the locker room among the guys that it’s not going to be easy.
“As I’ve said all year long, we’re built for this moment. Simple as that. No one said it was going to be easy. It might be hard. But we are capable of doing it. So everybody had a great mindset, came to play, came to compete, and hopefully we can do that in Game 7.”