MILWAUKEE (Wisconsin) • Mere minutes after the National Basketball Association announced its three Most Valuable Player finalists on Friday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo made it clear that he should be the winner.
The Milwaukee Bucks' sensational forward wasted no time setting the tone in a 125-103 blowout of the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, dunking through two defenders on his first offensive possession and then swatting Marc Gasol's shot on his first defensive possession.
As the Bucks raced to a 9-0 lead at their Fiserv Forum court, he dunked again and found Nikola Mirotic for a three-pointer.
Antetokounmpo's energy and force were too much for Toronto, who were behind by 14 points in the first quarter, 25 at half-time and as many as 28 in the third quarter as they trailed 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. The next two games will be in Toronto.
"The (Gasol) block is what stands out," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "When Giannis is active protecting the paint and rim, he plays so hard, he lays it all on the line all the time.
"It was a great start for us. Everybody fed off of Giannis. I'm beyond fortunate to have him."
Antetokounmpo's individual play makes him a worthy finalist alongside Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George. But it is his ego-less leadership and impact on the Bucks' offence, defence and culture that sets him apart this year.
As with Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry before him, his personality and approach are quieter than his overwhelming highlights.
He might scream after a dunk, but he never fails to get back on defence. He might be impossible to handle in a one-on-one, but he is a willing and intelligent passer who knows where his shooters are and who regularly defers credit to his teammates in news conferences.
GIVING HIS ALL FOR THE TEAM
When Giannis is active protecting the paint and rim, he plays so hard, he lays it all on the line all the time.
MIKE BUDENHOLZER, Milwaukee Bucks coach, on Giannis Antetokounmpo swatting Marc Gasol's shot early in the game.
Antetokounmpo, 24, finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and five assists. Mirotic (15 points), Khris Middleton (12) and Ersan Ilyasova (17) hit two treys each, and reserve guard Malcolm Brogdon (14) added three more.
Milwaukee's bench outscored Toronto's 54-39, with six Bucks finishing in double figures.
"It's so nice seeing guys come into the game being mentally prepared and playing hard," Antetokounmpo said of the Bucks' bench.
"This team, on any given night, guys can step up. This is the beauty of basketball and the beauty of our team: We trust each other."
Kawhi Leonard scored 31 points and had eight rebounds for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry added 15 points, Norman Powell had 14 points, and Serge Ibaka contributed eight points and 10 rebounds.
"We were a step too slow on just about everything," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of his team, who shot 42.5 per cent overall to Milwaukee's 46.7.
"We didn't play very well tonight, we just didn't do a good enough job of setting ourselves up."
In the Western Conference Finals, two-time defending champions the Golden State Warriors are seeking a third straight win when they travel to Portland (today, Singapore time) for Game 3 against third seeds Trail Blazers.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS