MILWAUKEE (AP) — When Giannis Antetokounmpo crashed to the court just two weeks ago with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, there was no guarantee he’d be back this season.
Maybe, he feared, he might even miss a year.
Antetokounmpo refused to stay down.
These Milwaukee Bucks just won’t, either.
Antetokounmpo had 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the NBA Finals’ return to Milwaukee, and the Bucks pounded Phoenix 120-100 on Sunday night, cutting the Suns’ lead to 2-1.
“We knew what kind of game this was going to be,” Antetokounmpo said. “We knew that if we lose the game you’re in the hole.”
Instead, the Bucks started climbing out of one.
The first NBA Finals game in Milwaukee since 1974 went to the home team in a romp, with Antetokounmpo and the bigger Bucks overwhelming the smallish Suns to the tune of a 20-2 advantage in second-chance points.
Game 4 is Wednesday night, with the series guaranteed to go back to Phoenix afterward.
“I said it after last game. This team’s not going to give in. They’re going to keep playing all the way through,” Suns star Devin Booker said. “So we have to bring that same effort that we had in the first two games and I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Antetokounmpo, who missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals because of a hyperextended left knee and was no sure thing to even be ready to start this series, followed up his 42-point, 12-rebound performance in Game 2 by doing it all again — even making his free throws this time.
Back in front of his own fans and free of the loud counts he’s been hearing on the road, Antetokounmpo went 13 of 17 at the line. With two straight 40-point games in the NBA Finals, he’s halfway to Michael Jordan’s record — set against the Suns.
Chris Paul had 19 points and nine assists, but the Suns got next to nothing from his star backcourt mate. Booker shot 3 for 14, scoring just 10 points.
Jrue Holiday bounced back from two poor games in Phoenix with five 3-pointers and 21 points to get the Bucks going again onto the comeback trail, having already overcome one 2-0 deficit in this postseason. Khris Middleton added 18.
“We all hate to lose and we know the ultimate goal,” Holiday said.
Fans broke out their “Bucks in 6! Bucks in 6!” chant as Milwaukee started to pull away in the first half and then again as the benches emptied with the final minutes.
The Bucks are seeking their second NBA title and hadn’t even played for one in 47 years. They grabbed control of this game by outscoring Phoenix 30-9 over the last nine minutes of the second quarter, then ending the third with a 16-0 finish.
Fans began making their way to the Deer District outside the arena in the middle of the afternoon, with so many fans decked out in green that Fiserv Forum felt more like Fiserv Forest.
They didn’t get to cheer as much as they wanted early after a strong start by the Suns, who got 12 points from Deandre Ayton in the opening period. But Ayton was hampered by foul trouble and the Bucks soon ran past and kept right on going.
Antetokounmpo had seven straight points to finish a 9-0 run in the second that gave Milwaukee a six-point lead, and after Phoenix scored four straight, the Bucks took off again on a 16-3 run.
Bobby Portis had the last two baskets in the half, finishing off a pretty fast break with a dunk for one of them, and it was 60-45 at the break.
The lead was 13 with under eight minutes left in the third when Cam Johnson took a pass near midcourt with an open path to the basket. P.J. Tucker tried to step in but was too late, and Johnson threw it down over him while drawing the foul.
That triggered a 14-5 run that cut it to 74-70 and seemed to have the Suns back into the game. Just as quickly, they were out of it again.
Holiday made two 3-pointers in the next minute and Milwaukee pushed the lead back to nine, and by the end of the third it had ballooned to 98-76.
The Bucks, who lost the first two games against Brooklyn in the second round, avoided falling into a 3-0 hole from which no NBA team has escaped.
They limited the Suns to nine 3-pointers after Phoenix hit 20 in its Game 2 victory.
Ayton and Jae Crowder each had 18 points for the Suns. But Mikal Bridges, who had a career playoff-high 27 in Game 2, took only four shots and had four points.
Suns: Torrey Craig had two points in 15 minutes after hurting his right knee in Game 2. He came up gingerly after lunging to save a bad pass by Paul that went out of bounds in the second quarter. … Frank Kaminsky, the former college player of the year at Wisconsin, had six points after going scoreless in the two games in Phoenix.
Bucks: Antetokounmpo had his 11th game with 30 points and 10 rebounds, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974 for most by a Bucks player in one postseason. Only Shaquille O’Neal (13, 2000) and Elgin Baylor (12, 1962) had more. … The Bucks said there were 25,000 fans in the Deer District. … Portis and Brook Lopez each scored 11 points.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Monty Williams, in his second season as coach, said he has received text messages from Steve Nash and others from the Suns’ past as he tries to lead the organization to its first title.
“That’s been pretty cool because I’m new to it and they have adopted me like I’ve been in it for a long time, but it’s really not even two years yet,” Williams said. “So the way that they have embraced me has been pretty cool.”