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This was a night when the stars mostly had to be wingmen instead, Maverick ceding to Iceman for the good of the club.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was still brilliant — 26 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, two blocks — but the Bucks had a shot to tie the NBA Finals because Khris Middleton played the game of his life — 40 points, many big shots down the stretch.
Chris Paul wasn’t brilliant. He struggled. He scuffled. He only scored 10 points. His seven assists were almost entirely obscured by five turnovers. He looked every second of 36 years old. But Devin Booker — 42 points, 17-for-28 from the floor — had the Suns in splendid position to bring a 3-1 lead in this series back to Phoenix.
Still … these are the Finals.
And stars … well, stars do crave moments like this.
And so it was: The Bucks, who looked dead three different times in the fourth quarter, somehow led 101-99, after Middleton drained a 19-footer with 88 seconds left. The Suns, going for the kill, hadn’t let the Bucks out of their sights all night.
So Booker, with the ball, started to drive the lane after taking a hand-off from Deandre Ayton, who flashed to the basket. Ayton was open. Booker saw he was open. Every eye inside Fiserv Forum saw he was open. Booker flicked the ball to the rim, expecting an Ayton slam, expecting a tie game, expecting a quiet, funereal arena.
What he wasn’t expecting: Antetokounmpo, in an eyeblink, catching up to Ayton — who already was soaring toward the basket — quick-leaping, getting in Ayton’s way and …
“HE BLOCKED THE SHOT!” came the three-way harmony of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the TV, their voices soon drowned out by maybe the loudest sound a basketball arena has made in two years.
He blocked the shot?
He blocked the shot?
“He made a spectacular block,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, shaking his head, stunned by what he had seen even if he sees Antetokounmpo do things like that every day of the year: exhibition games, practices, Game 4 of the NBA Finals. “He has the ability to cover an awful lot of ground.”
He shook his head.
“That,” he said, “is an NBA Final special moment.”
It was impossible, in the moment, not to immediately recall 2016, and LeBron James catching up to Andre Igoudala at the end of Game 7 of the Finals, the play that allowed Kyrie Irving’s jumper not long after to be the title-winner for the Cavaliers. They were different blocks — James’ more of a sheer athletic showcase, Antetokounmpo’s a master stroke of instinct and quickness.
But they left fans panting, and arenas ranting. They were — Budenholzer’s words — NBA Finals special moments.
“Just a hustle play,” Antetokounmpo said a bit later, after this 109-103 Bucks victory was secure, after they’d tied the series at 2-2, after they’d guaranteed their fans at least one more communal party, when Game 6 returns to Wisconsin on Tuesday. “At that point in the game you do whatever it takes to put yourself in position to win the game.
“I saw the play coming, I felt him rolling in behind me, I jumped vertically toward the rim and hopefully I can be there in time. I got there in time.”
He got there in time. Every time you rewind it. He gets there every time.
Budenholzer, his voice absent irony, said: “Big-time play. We’re gonna need more of them.”
Well, as long as he has No. 34 on his side, he has come to the right place. Antetokounmpo didn’t have the game softly in his palm, as he did Game 3 when he was simply unstoppable. He was merely excellent. And for the longest time it seemed that Booker’s epic outburst would be enough to pin Giannis and his mates to the abyss.
But Middleton was wonderful late. Jrue Holiday was a dynamo on defense. Backup guard Pat Connaughton, who each game looks as if he has arrived straight from an industrial-league opener, made every important play down the stretch, had 11 gritty points and nine sweaty boards. The Bucks had fought back from nine down to two ahead. They needed one more play to feel secure.
Then a ball was lofted toward a basket, and one of the best basketball players on Earth did what comes naturally. He went after it. He got in between Ayton and the basket. And he delivered a play they’ll be talking about in Milwaukee when Antetokounmpo and Middletown take honored alumni seats courtside in 50 years, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson did Wednesday.
An NBA Finals special moment. One for the ages.
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