The 26-year-old two-time MVP is one win from an NBA championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo amassed 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists, including a game-sealing alley-oop dunk, to lead the visiting Milwaukee Bucks to a wild 123-119 come-from-behind Game 5 win over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. The most overpowering force in the league gave his team a 3-2 series lead after trailing 2-0, and Milwaukee hosts its superstar’s first close-out title shot Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
The Bucks can win the franchise’s first championship since 1971 at their own Fiserv Forum.
“Obviously, we know what the deal is,” Antetokounmpo said after being treated for severe cramping. “It’s one game away from being an NBA champ, being in the history of this game, being always there. Nobody can take that away from you. Doing it in front of our families and our fans, it’s big. It’s going to be big.”
Antetokounmpo’s co-stars played supporting roles to perfection. Khris Middleton scored seven of his 29 points in the game’s final 3:25 to suppress Phoenix’s own comeback attempt. Jrue Holiday added 27 points. His third steal was a rip of Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker with 16.7 seconds in a one-point game, and three ticks later his 13th assist found a soaring Antetokounmpo for the dunk and a 122-119 lead.
“They don’t call him the Freak for nothing,” Holiday told reporters. “I threw it as high as I could.”
“There’s a lot of guys that would dribble it out and try to waste more time,” added Bucks guard Pat Connaughton. “But he knew the time, he knew the score, and he knew a bucket would kind of be a backbreaker. He threw it to where there may only be one or two individuals in the world that could get it.”
Booker scored 40 points in defeat for the second straight game. Chris Paul continued to struggle throughout much of Game 5, both with his aggression and typically masterful handle, but he scored 10 of his 21 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter, including a rugged layup over Antetokounmpo’s outstretched arms that pulled the Suns within 120-119 just inside the final minute. Paul added 11 assists.
Over the final nine minutes of Game 5, the Suns slowly cut into a Milwaukee lead that had ballooned to 14 points. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Mikal Bridges and Paul cut the deficit to single digits midway through the fourth quarter. A ridiculously difficult Booker 3-pointer eventually slashed the Bucks’ lead to 120-117 with 1:24 left, but his turnover at the hands of Holiday a minute later led to Antetokounmpo’s clutch dunk.
“A great play by Jrue,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “I don’t have any other words for that one.”
Game 5 risked slipping away from the Bucks midway through the opening quarter, when Holiday committed his second foul and Booker started cooking their reserve guards. The Suns had already started a streak of field goals that swelled to 11 straight, capped by a Bridges 3-pointer that stretched Phoenix’s edge to 32-16. By the time the quarter was over, Phoenix shot 14-for-19 from the field and 5-of-6 from 3.
Milwaukee countered with a 43-point second quarter that silenced a raucous Phoenix crowd. With Antetokounmpo resting, the Bucks banked a 21-5 run to start the second quarter that included seven straight points from Holiday and tied the game, 42-42. Both Antetokounmpo and Booker returned to the second quarter at the 6:14 mark, and 28 seconds later, a Bobby Portis triple gave Milwaukee a 50-49 lead.
It was the Bucks who were cooking by halftime, when they led 64-61 on 58% shooting from the field and 9-for-17 marksmanship from distance. Holiday led everyone at the break with 18 points (8-11 FG) and seven assists, and Portis and Connaughton poured in five 3-pointers on eight tries off the bench.
“One of the things we talk about all the time in the locker room is aggressive Jrue,” said Middleton. “When he’s aggressive, he’s one of the tougher point guards to handle — his size, his athleticism, his skill set. He can do so many things on the court when he’s aggressive and getting to the paint, hitting shots like we saw tonight and finding guys. He’s a balanced player and a really skilled player that we’re lucky to have.”
Milwaukee amped its lead to double digits midway through the third quarter, when stars Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton hit the Suns with another 7-0 run. It was an absolute onslaught by the Bucks, who were shooting better from the field (62%) and 3 (57%) than they were from the free-throw line (50%).
Not even Booker’s 14 third-quarter points kept Milwaukee from riding momentum into the final quarter.
The Suns did have one final chance to secure a potential game-tying possession when Antetokounmpo missed the free-throw attempt that came with his athletic alley-oop dunk in the waning seconds. The rebound bounced off the hands of both Holiday and Antetokounmpo into Middleton’s grasp. He was fouled immediately by Booker and made the second of his two free-throw attempts for the 123-119 advantage.
“That was a horrible miss,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said of Antetokounmpo’s seventh missed free throw in 11 tries. “It was just an athletic play. He tipped it behind him, knowing his teammates are there.”
All the 36-year-old Paul could do was watch as his likely last best chance for a title slipped from the Suns’ grasp to the brink of elimination. His teams are 6-12 in win-or-go-home playoff games in his 16-year career. He has erased a 3-2 series lead only once before, a 2015 first-round seres against the San Antonio Spurs.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Paul said after another devastating loss. “We didn’t expect it to be. It’s hard. Coach said it all year long: Everything we want is on the other side of hard, and it don’t get no harder than this, so we got to regroup, learn from this game, but it’s over. We got to get ready for Game 6.”
An exhausted Antetokounmpo, two weeks from hyperextending his left knee, now has two more days of rest before his shot to win Milwaukee’s fourth straight Finals game and its first championship since a 24-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar last led the Bucks to glory as the reigning MVP 50 years ago.
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