MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo broke out into a huge smile when asked for his thoughts ahead of a pivotal Game 7 Sunday afternoon in Boston.
“Good old Game 7,” he said. “Beautiful.”
The Bucks and Celtics will go the distance in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, after Boston held on for a 108-95 victory in Game 6 Friday night at Fiserv Forum. For Antetokounmpo, there seems to be no nerves, no stress, and no frustration — at least outwardly — ahead of the winner-take-all contest.
“For me, I just got to go out there and play free,” he said. “Be fearless. Play free. We don’t owe nobody nothing.”
Antetokounmpo should be confident. He scored 44 points in the losing effort Wednesday night, grabbing 20 rebounds and making 14 of his 30 shot attempts (46.7 percent). He’s a two-time MVP and reigning NBA champion. He won a Game 7 in overtime on the road just last year, scoring 40 points against the Brooklyn Nets.
Against the Celtics this series, Antetokounmpo is averaging 35 points per game and powering his way to the rim. After a slow start, when he tallied 52 points on 52 shots in Games 1 and 2, he has scored more efficiently and asserted his dominance in the paint.
So, what adjustments are on his mind headed into Sunday?
“Me personally? I don’t know,” he said. “I know that we have a great coaching staff, a great coach, and great minds behind the scenes that are going to tell us what adjustments to make, the analytics. But at the end of the day, for me, I just have to go play and go lead the team in any way I can.”
For the Bucks not named Giannis, however, lighting up the stat sheet has been a challenge. With Khris Middleton sidelined with his left MCL sprain, the Bucks have struggled to find additional sources of offense. Milwaukee overcame a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Game 5 because of a collective effort. That showing, however, has not been the norm.
Guard Grayson Allen, inserted into the starting lineup for Bobby Portis in Game 3, has been awful. After serving as a spark plug in Milwaukee’s first-round series against Chicago, making 70 percent of his threes following Middleton’s injury, Allen’s most eye-catching stat in the box scores against Boston has been his individual plus-minus.
On Friday, Allen finished a minus-29 in 22 minutes, shooting 1 of 7 from the field, including 0 of 4 from three. Throughout six games, the Bucks have gotten outscored by 43 points when Allen is on the court. His 3-point shooting has cooled down tremendously, as he’s making just 25 percent of his attempts and averaging 5.6 points per game. Allen is no better defensively — in fact, he’s worse — constantly getting picked on by the Celtics.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer did not sound fazed by the numbers.
“Grayson is doing his best,” Budenholzer said.
Given Allen’s defensive limitations and minimal offensive contributions, Budenholzer could consider integrating guard Jevon Carter back into the rotation. Carter averaged 20.5 minutes in Games 1 and 2 before getting bounced in favor of George Hill, who returned to action after being sidelined for a month with an abdomen injury.
Hill has not been particularly effective. Carter won’t help much with the secondary scoring, but he’s a defensive pest. Among players that have averaged at least 10 minutes per game during the postseason, Carter boasts the best individual defensive rating (86.8)
Budenholzer could consider giving him another chance.
“Jevon’s been good,” he said. “He’s helped us, so we have to look at everything.”
Even though Milwaukee’s supporting cast has largely struggled offensively, Antetokounmpo had nothing but encouragement for his teammates ahead of Game 7.
“I believe, as a team, we’ve given everything we’ve had through six games,” he said. “I haven’t seen one of the six games that we’ve played that I went home and was like, ‘Damn, we didn’t give enough effort.’ The effort is always there. Hopefully, the effort can be there in Game 7, we can have a little bit of luck on our side, and we can win the game.”
Regardless of the result, he hopes Sunday’s experience will benefit the Bucks moving forward.
“You grow from it,” he said. “You learn from it. You learn what the atmosphere is like, when the ball gets heavy. No matter what happens, you’re going to leave that game and you’re going to get better. If we’re going to be the team that advances to the next round, great. I hope so. We’re going to play hard. But if we’re not, at the end of the day, we’re going to learn from this, we’re going to be better.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.