‘Absolutely ready for this game,’ Giannis Antetokounmpo delivers dominating performance as Milwaukee Bucks take series lead

MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics made it tough offensively for Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first two games of this series, but Antetokounmpo broke through with a dominating performance in Game 3, scoring 42 points to lead the Bucks to a victory 103-101 Saturday.

An extra day between Games 2 and 3 gave Antetokounmpo more time to simmer his performance from Milwaukee’s latest loss – which included a 2-for-12 shot in the first half. A team source described Antetokounmpo’s behavior in training in the days leading up to Game 3 as “angry” at ESPN because he thought he could play better.

“He was absolutely ready for this game,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “I think he was ready for this game right after Game 2.”

Antetokounmpo rebounded from a poor night of shooting in Game 2 to finish 16 of 30 (53%) on Saturday, adding 12 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks to help the Bucks take a 2-1 series advantage.

The Celtics had thrown him off balance by throwing in a mix of talented physical defenders to protect him on every possession, but Antetokounmpo found answers on Saturday. He scored against five different primary defensemen, including 14 points against Celtics forward Al Horford, and had 26 points in the paint, his most in a playoff game this season, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

And when Antetokounmpo rolled to the basket, the Celtics had no response. He scored 17 points when shooting after his own practices, according to Second Spectrum, his best in a game this season.

“I just tried to read what’s in front of me, to play to my strengths as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “I know what my strengths are. Sometimes I play the right game, sometimes I play the wrong game, but as long as I play to my strengths, I will be well placed.”

He added: “At the end of the day, I’m not going to change something that worked for me. I live or die with it. … Now I have to be smarter with it and I have to pick and choose the moment. Sometimes I feel like I could rush things. I have to slow down and take my time and get to my places.

But Antetokounmpo also found various ways to punish the Celtics on Saturday.

He did it in transition; the Bucks beat the Celtics 21-11 in quick break points and Antetokounmpo scored 11 points on 3 of 6 (5 for 5 free throws). He did it by involving his teammates – Milwaukee shot 8 of 17 for 19 points on a pass from Antetokounmpo. And he disrupted Boston defensively, limiting the Celtics to just 3-of-10 shooting when he was the leading defenseman.

“He does a great job, reading what they give him or what they try to take away from him, whatever it is,” Lopez said. “They throw a lot of different guys at him, a lot of different looks and all that kind of stuff. He does a great job of being smart, taking his time and playing for himself or someone else.”

The Bucks were happy with their defensive efforts after the first two games of this series, so they spent the days leading up to Game 3 focusing on how they could generate an easier offense, especially for Antetokounmpo. The Celtics’ stifling defense challenged just about everything for Antetokounmpo, making him work hard for every basket, so the Bucks wanted to give him the ball with room to score less tiring runs.

Usually, the Bucks turn to forward Khris Middleton in such cases, executing their offense through pick-and-rolls between Middleton and Antetokounmpo. However, while Middleton is expected to miss the rest of the series with a sprained left MCL, Milwaukee has used guard Jrue Holiday more frequently as Antetokounmpo’s pick-and-roll partner.

Antetokounmpo placed 13 screens on the ball for Holiday that led to a direct action (shot, turnover, foul), their most in a game as teammates, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. He wasn’t very successful in Game 3 — averaging 0.39 points per direct pick, compared to 1.05 points during the regular season — but it’s a look the Bucks want to have available to them for generate an attack with Middleton sidelined.

“It feels good,” said Holiday, who scored 25 points on 11-of-30 shooting after the game. “Sometimes with us they change, but there have been many times when they haven’t. [the screen]getting to the paint, getting to the basket, I felt like with the ball in my hands, I could make those plays.

“I can make that shot or even kick. Me and Giannis have picked and rolled a lot of times. In this series, I feel like it’s good to go, especially with Khris out. In the end After all, it’s going to be the two of us.”

Holiday and Antetokounmpo each took 30 shots on Saturday and helped shut down Boston in critical time with a two-man field goal in the final minute of the game to redeem themselves from a one-point deficit with 50 seconds left.

Milwaukee’s stars outperformed Boston’s and the Bucks are seeded because of it. And because Antetokounmpo was determined to react after a night’s rest.

“He was very focused, mentally composed,” Lopez said of Antetokounmpo’s preparation this week. “Doing his job when we came in for practice, watching a lot of movies, re-watching a lot of stuff. He was definitely prepared for tonight. It’s just Giannis.”

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