Put this on the shelf. The big one. The top one. It belongs there. Let it be known, for now and forever, that Giannis Antetokounmpo, with his team and his city begging for a conqueror, turned in one of the greatest performances the NBA has ever seen in a title-clinching game.
He was that good. He was that remarkable. He was 50 points and 14 rebounds and five blocks. He was — and this is not a typo — 17-for-19 from the foul line. The Suns tried everything. They ran everyone at them. You half expected to see Tom Chambers and Alvan Adams hanging off his arms. Didn’t matter.
The Bucks won 105-98. Antetokounmpo was MVP by acclimation. And his performance now goes on that shelf, along with Bill Russell (30 points, 40 rebounds) in Game 7 in 1962, along with Michael Jordan’s 45 points and eternal step-back title winner in Game 6 in 1998, alongside Clyde Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists in Game 7 in 1970 and alongside what has long been held as the gold standard — Magic Johnson’s 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists playing all five positions in Game 6 in 1980.
Yep. Put this on that shelf. It belongs there. It’ll belong there forever.
For three quarters this was as terrific a game as you could have asked for with one team on the brink of destiny and the other merely on the brink.
There were reports of upwards of 65,000 people crowding the blocks and avenues surrounding Fiserv Forum, and a full house inside, and they were hungry for a coronation. Fifty years ago, when the Bucks had won their only championship behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, the clincher had come in Baltimore.
Fifty years later — 18,346 days later — Milwaukee wasn’t going to scrimp on the atmosphere. Milwaukee had enjoyed one other professional championship — 1957, Lew Burdette and the Braves in seven over the Yankees. Milwaukee had enjoyed the 1977 Marquette Warriors, who won an NCAA title in Al McGuire’s final game.
Interestingly those games had taken place out of town, too — the Brewers winning Game 7 at Yankee Stadium in ’57, Marquette winning at Atlanta’a old Omni Arena in ’77 (to say nothing of winning the NIT in 1970 at Madison Square Garden, when they had a team good enough to win the NCAAs but opted for the NIT instead thanks to a McGuire feud with the NCAA seeding system).
So it wasn’t just Bucks fans who were hungry. It was the entire city of Milwaukee, too, which has basked in some reflected glory over the years thanks to the Packers.
But Phoenix is starving, too. Pro sports arrived in the desert with the Suns in 1968, and in their ninth year of existence they extended the Celtics to six games in the ’76 Finals. They were a worthy foil to the Jordan Bulls back in 1993, too, before John Paxson ended their aspirations in Game 6.
The Cardinals have been to one Super Bowl, lost a heartbreaker, have mostly been woeful since moving from St. Louis. The Coyotes have made it as far as one Conference final since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. Only the Diamondbacks — 20 years ago — have lifted a championship banner in the desert.
So back in Arizona, Suns fans hoped for deliverance Tuesday night, hoped the Suns could survive Game 6, hoped they could tune out the maddening crowd and the deafening noise, hoped they could see more basketball Thursday night, Game 7, everything on the line in a one-and-done test of wills.
Antetokounmpo was brilliant from the opening tap, dominating every aspect of the game, both ends of the floor, and the most remarkable part about it was that he was making his free throws: he sank 16 of his first 17. His wingmen — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez — were fine as members of the Bucks’ Greek chorus. But it was the Greek Freak’s show all the way.
And on the other side? The Suns overcame an early 13-point hole, took the lead at half, were still tied at 77 after three quarters. They were equal to the moment in every way. Maybe we will learn in a few weeks that Paul was physically compromised but it was impossible to tell Tuesday. And while Booker started off slow, by the second half he was calmly making one clutch shot after another.
Five minutes from the end of the game Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had to call for time because it looked like Antetokounmpo was close to passing out. Understandable. For 48 splendid minutes the Bucks and the Suns took everyone’s breath away. Too bad the series can’t be best-of-15.