50 Years on, Giannis' 50 nails it

Antetokounmpo's career-high performance powers Milwaukee to first NBA title since 1971

MILWAUKEE • Fifty years ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first National Basketball Association (NBA) championship.

For decades, it was the only time the franchise had reached that height. That is, until now.

On Tuesday night, the Bucks capped their return to greatness.

They are once again led by a behemoth with unique skill, this one a 26-year-old forward from Greece nicknamed the "Greek Freak", Giannis Antetokounmpo.

On their home court, Milwaukee defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals for a 4-2 overall victory to win their second championship and complete a gruelling season hit by injuries and coronavirus disruptions.

"This is a feeling, like this is an addictive feeling," said Antetokounmpo. "I love playing in the play-offs. I love playing in the Finals. These are the moments I want to chase. I want the team to build off this and hopefully we can do it again."

He turned in one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history, scoring 50 points - a play-off career high - and adding 14 rebounds.

Like he has for most of his career, Antetokounmpo bullied his way to the basket using an array of spin movies and brute force, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, there was no doubt who would be named the Finals' Most Valuable Player (MVP).

The Suns kept the decisive game competitive in the second half, with Chris Paul pacing the visitors with 26 points but Antetokounmpo could not be denied.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer could only sing the praises of his talisman, saying: "It's hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does. He's off the charts."

What was also off the charts was the pain felt by the Suns.

Phoenix, who won the first two games at home, dropped four in a row for the first time all season at the worst time all season.

"It's hard to get here and I wanted it so bad," Suns coach Monty Williams said before choking up, his words emerging as a slow whisper.

"It's hard to process right now. It's hard. That's all.

"I've never dealt with this kind of hurt as a head coach. There's just a pain that goes with your season being over, but I've never dealt with this. I know this is going to hurt for a while."

Describing the Suns' locker room as "just lost," Paul said he intends to channel the pain into harder work for next season and a chance to return to the Finals after being somewhat of a shock in this year's playoffs.

"For me, it just means back to work. Nothing more, nothing less," Paul, who was in the NBA Finals for the first time in his 16-year career at age 36, said.

"Ain't no moral victories or whatnot. We sort of saw what it takes to get there and hopefully we see what it takes to get past that."

Bahamas big man Deandre Ayton tried to see the defeat as a start and not an ending.

"This is just the beginning. Now we know what we need to do," Ayton said. "We feel it. It leaves a little bad taste in your mouth.

"I tip my hat off to Milwaukee. They wanted to die on that court. That's what it takes. Everybody has got to give it their all when it comes to this, especially when it's the last game."

Unlike last year's Finals, when the celebratory screams of the Los Angeles Lakers echoed across a closed-door ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bucks' win kicked off a wild party for both a capacity crowd of 17,000 inside the Fiserv Forum and the 65,000 fans at a watch party outside the arena.

Halfway across the world, the Bucks' victory also sparked celebrations. Greeks woke up yesterday with the news of Antetokounmpo's accomplishments due to the time difference with Milwaukee.

All the country's websites led with the Bucks' victory with extensive details about Antetokounmpo's 50-point performance.

"Incredible Giannis Antetokounmpo! Greeks everywhere celebrate!" wrote Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Twitter.

"From a small apartment in Sepolia, to the top of the world," main opposition Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras posted on Facebook.

According to local media, Antetokounmpo and his family will be arriving in Athens on Saturday for a long-awaited vacation.

NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline '50 Years on, Giannis' 50 nails it'. Subscribe