MILWAUKEE — As remarkable as Giannis Antetokounmpo has been in delivering MVP-caliber performances during the NBA Finals while playing with an injured knee, there have been games in which he was good but not great.
Good hadn’t been good enough for a Milwaukee Bucks win — until Game 4.
And while Antetokounmpo will likely need to be great again, his teammates must prove they can deliver on the road the way they have at home. The Bucks and Phoenix Suns are tied 2-2 as the series returns to Phoenix for Game 5 on Saturday.
The Bucks need to maintain what they found in Milwaukee to rally from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a 109-103 Game 4 victory Wednesday night.
“Going down the stretch, we kept believing in ourselves,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 4. “We kept executing, setting screens. We kept running, we kept rebounding the ball, we kept blocking shots. We wanted this bad, and the team showed it tonight. But we’ve got to keep getting better.”
Antetokounmpo has averaged 32.3 points, 14 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the finals despite hyperextending his left knee in the Bucks’ previous series, causing him to miss the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals.
But the Bucks showed in Game 4 that they can beat the Suns even when their two-time MVP isn’t at his absolute best.
Antetokounmpo had a more-than-respectable 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in Game 4 as well as a spectacular block that prevented Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton from tying the game with 1:14 left. Those numbers would make just about any other NBA player envious, but they actually represented a step back after Antetokounmpo delivered back-to-back performances of over 40 points and 10 rebounds in Games 2 and 3.
It was Khris Middleton – not Antetokounmpo – who scored 40 points to lead the Bucks to their come-from-behind victory. Middleton reeled off eight straight points in the closing minutes to help the Bucks turn a 99-97 deficit into a 105-99 lead.
“That’s what he does down the stretch,” Antetokounmpo said. “We want him to have the ball. We want him to be the decision maker.”
Other players chipped in as well.
Jrue Holiday followed up his 21-point Game 3 performance by shooting just 4 of 20 in Game 4, but he also made one of the game’s biggest plays when he stole the ball from Chris Paul, sparking a fastbreak that resulted in a Middleton layup to put the Bucks ahead 103-99 with 27.2 seconds left.
“That’s what it’s all about - learning, learning how to win different types of ballgames, different styles,” said Middleton, who scored 10 of the Bucks’ last 12 points. “And that’s what that was moment was about, finding a way to win a game where it seemed like we weren’t going to win, and give us a chance to still have a life, going to Phoenix with a little bit of confidence, with a little bit of momentum.”
The Bucks must win at least once in Phoenix to have a shot at their first title in 50 years. The last time the Bucks played there, they lost by double digits even as Antetokounmpo produced 42 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Phoenix’s wall of defenders handled Antetokounmpo well enough Wednesday to make the Suns believe they can prevent him from repeating those superhuman outbursts he delivered in Games 2 and 3.
“We’re trying to give him some different looks, especially in the half court,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I thought our guys did an unreal job in the half court. We were doubling him at times and firing out to their shooters, just trying to take him off of his rhythm. In transition the wall was a lot better tonight. It’s something that we can get better at.”
That’s going to put more pressure on Antetokounmpo’s teammates to play better on the road.
Holiday must regain his shooting touch while maintaining his ferocious defense. Pat Connaughton has to continue producing off the bench. But most of all, the Bucks will need a huge road effort from Middleton, the unsung star who has turned this postseason into a personal showcase.
Antetokounmpo said Middleton’s Game 4 performance was “incredible., then added:
“We need him to keep doing it,” Antetokounmpo noted. “We are within reach of our goals.”