MILWAUKEE — After dominating the first three games of the NBA Finals, Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is expected to do more of the same in Game 4 on Wednesday night, as he and his teammates hope to even this series with the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix, like every other team that faces Antetokounmpo, will try to wall off the rim in an attempt to keep the two-time NBA MVP at bay — something the Suns have had no success at all doing through three games (Game 4, 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, ABC).
Antetokounmpo on Tuesday marveled at the fact teams are now constructing defenses specifically designed to try to slow him, just a few short years after coming into the NBA as a gangly teenager with an unknown ceiling to his game.
“The first time I saw the wall was probably two years ago,” Antetokounmpo said after Tuesday’s practice. “But I was always capable of passing before that. It’s something that I always liked to do. I had coaches and people throughout my career that helped me with finding the right guy, finding the right pass, making the right play. But once I started seeing the wall, two years ago, now it’s almost, it’s about trust. And it’s kind of hard, because you want to be effective, you want to get downhill, you want to do everything.
“And you take it personal, also. There’s a team that’s building the wall of three people and two guys behind and trying to stop you. Now you have to not take it personal and make the right play, find the right guy. I feel like I did that better since two years ago. … But I was always a capable passer before the wall was created. [It] is funny that there’s a defense out there called the Giannis Wall. It’s funny to me, you know?”
It’s not so funny for the Suns, who have watched Antetokounmpo rampage through their defenses and get to the rim time and again. He is one of four players — along with Hall of Famers Rick Barry, Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal — to have scored at least 100 points in his first three NBA Finals games. Antetokounmpo also has gone for more than 40 points and 10 rebounds in each of the past two games.
Phoenix has thrown every possible option at him, from center DeAndre Ayton to forwards Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, with little changing in terms of Antetokounmpo’s ability to attack. After the Suns got the game taken to them physically in Milwaukee’s Game 3 win, it’s easy to expect Phoenix to try to take the initiative to make Antetokounmpo’s life more difficult in Game 4.
“They took it to us,” Suns coach Monty Williams said Tuesday. “No other way to look at it. They played with a great deal of force — 50/50 balls, attacking the paint. We had spurts of playing the way that we play, but certainly not as consistent as we needed to. I think I said that the other day. From the first possession of the game, we had a bad transition defensive lapse and they get a corner three in transition.
“That was a credit to them. They played with a great deal of energy and they were physical. We were physical, but they were physical from the jump. The more I looked at it, it was like I can sit here and make excuses about what we didn’t do and all of that, but they played at a high, high level.”
Antetokounmpo, in particular, attacked relentlessly. He drew 17 foul shots by himself in Game 3 — compared to 16 for the Suns as a whole, which Williams pointed out after Sunday’s game.
“Somebody asked me the question, so I answered it,” Williams said Tuesday about making the point. “And then the free throw disparity is what it is. So that’s what I did. They had one player with 17 free throws. We had 16.
“That’s not complaining. That’s stating facts.”
When Antetokounmpo was asked about the disparity between the teams — and his impact on it — he claimed he didn’t know such a discussion was taking place, saying he doesn’t pay attention to social media.
But he came with his own facts about whether he’s earning those trips to the free throw line.
“I think I take a pretty good beating down there. I have a scratch right here and scratch right here,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile, pointing to his forehead and nose, before adding with a laugh: “So they’re making my pretty face ugly.
“But it is what it is. I just try to focus on what I have to do and how can I help my team be successful. That’s all I’m going to spend my energy on.”
Part of how that will happen is continuing to go over, around and through the walls that the Suns are putting up to stop him. Antetokounmpo has earned criticism over time for his penchant for taking too many jumpers, instead of attacking the rim, and for his foibles at the free throw line.
But he said all he can do is stick to the mantras he repeatedly says during his press conferences — to compete as hard as he can, and enjoy the experience as much as you can — and let the chips fall where they may.
“You have to take it as a compliment,” Antetokounmpo said of defenses designed specifically to trying to slow him. “You always have to find the fun factor in everything. In that, in the free throw, ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ [when opposing fans are counting how long he takes to shoot], whatever.
“You always got to find the fun factor. So, yeah, it is a compliment that there’s got to be three people in front stopping me from getting in the paint and building that wall.”
The only people who hate it more are the ones hoping it will work.
“Regardless of how he scores, he does it. You know what I mean?” Chris Paul said. “He comes down there, he dunks, he dunks some more and he shoots a layup. So it is what it is. I think you got to figure out a way to stop him. We have to try to figure out a way to slow him down. For us, slowing him down or not is [about winning] the game.
“Win the game. I don’t care what the stat sheet looks like after the game. Win the game. For him, I mean, he’s a two-time MVP, so we got to deal with him as such.”