MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo pointed to a pair of scratches, one on his forehead and the other on his cheek.
Those NBA Finals battle scars are proof, he figures, that the frustrated Phoenix Suns are indeed fouling him.
“So they’re making my pretty face ugly,” Antetokounmpo said.
The Suns may be hacking and whacking him, but they sure aren't stopping the Milwaukee Bucks star.
Coming off two straight 40-point performances, Antetokounmpo will try to help the Bucks even the series in Game 4 on Wednesday.
And whether playing with pain in his knee or shaking off hits to his face, the Suns know Antetokounmpo is going to keep attacking them.
“He’s coming full speed every play, like a running back coming downhill,” point guard Chris Paul said.
Antetokounmpo had 41 points and 13 rebounds in the Bucks' 120-100 victory in Game 3. That followed his 42 points and 12 rebounds in Game 2, making him just the sixth player with consecutive 40-point games in the NBA Finals.
The Suns have already faced LeBron James and Nikola Jokic during this run to their first NBA Finals since 1993, so they've had to figure out ways to overcome MVP players.
But Antetokounmpo, with his end-to-end bursts that seem to take just two or three dribbles, is a different type of challenge. Paul said Suns coach Monty Williams' instructions are just to try to get in the 6-foot-11 forward's way, but it's difficult to give too much attention because the Bucks have shooters such as Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez set up around the perimeter.
Paul said the Suns will just stick with their game plan.
“We’re going to keep trying to build a wall,” he said.
Antetokounmpo is used to that.
Bucks' Antetokounmpo finds humor in 'Giannis Wall' defensive scheme
He recalls it being about two years ago when teams started to employ that defensive strategy of packing multiple players in his path to the basket.
Antetokounmpo still doesn't enjoy playing against it — “I’m not going to lie; I hate it,” he said — but he's come to look at it as a compliment, adding that it's “funny that there’s a defense out there called the Giannis Wall.”
Most importantly for the Bucks, he's learned how to beat it. Antetokounmpo believes he was already a good passer before teams started using the wall and he's willing to move the ball to open players when they do. He had six assists in Game 3.
“It’s kind of hard, because you want to be effective, you want to get downhill, you want to do everything, but now you also — you take it personal also,” Antetokounmpo said.
“There’s a team that’s building the wall of three people and two guys behind and trying to stop you. Now you have to not take it personal and make the right play, find the right guy."
Antetokounmpo shot 17 free throws in Game 3, which Williams noted afterward was one more than the entire Suns team. Asked Tuesday why he chose to complain about it, one of NBA's most polite people suddenly turned testy.
“They had one player with 17 free throws; we had 16,” Williams said. “That’s not complaining. That’s stating facts.”
But Williams knew from watching the film that the Suns' problems Sunday started way before any fouls. When Phoenix missed its first shot, Antetokounmpo grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the court. The Suns paid too much attention to him and lost track of Holiday, who drifted alone into the corner to take the two-time MVP's pass for an open 3-pointer.
“It’s a hard truth that you have to do both. You have to be able to show a wall, but also have the integrity of your defense intact on the other side,” Williams said.
Antetokounmpo, two shy of Michael Jordan's record for consecutive 40-point games in the NBA Finals, could be even better in Game 4. The schedule has had the teams play just once in five days, giving him plenty of time to rest his injured left knee that forced him to miss two games in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Suns hope Devin Booker will also be better after his 3-for-14 shooting in Game 3. He averaged 29 points in the first two games.
“He’s a great player, but he’s human, also,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But I think we’re expecting we’re going to have to be even better on him.”
AYTON'S FOUL TROUBLE
Ayton finished with 18 points and nine rebounds but played less than 25 minutes in Phoenix’s loss to Milwaukee on Sunday. He ended up with five fouls, the first time this postseason he committed more than four in a single game.
“I’m not going to let none of those foul calls change my aggression,” Ayton said
Ayton is averaging 16.7 points and 13 rebounds in the finals. The Suns’ lack of size makes it imperative that Ayton stay on the floor.
“I’m not going to let that game bother me, to be honest,” Ayton said.
Ayton said he planned to “just show my hands early, letting the refs know where I’m at, feeling the refs out throughout the game, on my physicality, how I’m playing my defense.”
Milwaukee would like to get Ayton in foul trouble again Wednesday night. Ayton said he has done his homework and plans to avoid the same problems the rest of the series.
“I think that’s an awareness that I see on the court where they’re trying to attack me,” Ayton said, “so it’s just me bracing and being aware of what’s coming next.”
Even as he’s in the NBA Finals, Bucks forward P.J. Tucker said he is still getting accustomed to playing with his new teammates after coming over from the Houston Rockets in March.
“When you get traded in the middle of the year people don’t know how hard it is,” Tucker said. “It’s so hard to go from one team to another, whole change of scenery, new people, new everything. It’s a 24-, 48-hour turnaround and you’re playing a game.
“For me, that’s something I pride myself in, being able to be a chameleon, kind of get in, feel the situation out, what I need to do to help us win, and so on and so forth. That’s something to this day I’m figuring out every day, just trying to get better, be a better teammate, be a better vet, be a better player.”
CROWDER’S FINALS EXPERIENCE
Suns forward Jae Crowder is the only Phoenix player with previous Finals experience, as he helped the Miami Heat win last year’s Eastern Conference title.
That Finals experience was different from most with the entire postseason taking place in the Walt Disney World bubble. Even so, Crowder believes he can draw upon those memories while talking to teammates.
“I definitely tried to use that experience leading up to this point of helping my teammates, letting them know that it’s hard, it’s very hard basketball, two teams colliding, giving maximum effort for it all,” said Crowder, who scored 18 points and shot 6 of 7 from 3-point range in Game 3. “It’s the hardest thing we’ll do as a professional athlete, I feel like.”
But Crowder doesn’t believe his successful playoff series against the Bucks last season has any bearing on this year. Crowder averaged 15.2 points and shot 43.1% from 3-point range when Miami upset the top-seeded Bucks in the second round.
“I don’t think they go hand in hand at all,” Crowder said. “I honestly feel like those guys, respectfully, are better than they were last year. Ad I feel like me as a player, I’m better than I was last year.”
WAITING AND WAITING
Players offered different opinions on the playoff schedule that gives them two days off with no travel between Game 3 and Game 4.
Bucks guard Jrue Holiday liked the extra rest, particularly since they had so little time to get ready for the start of this series.
“It’s great,” Holiday said. “The season has been weird. We won Game 6 of the conference finals. We landed at 2 that morning and had to leave 6 at night to go to Phoenix.”
Suns guard Cameron Payne acknowledged the potential benefits but would have preferred a shorter wait.
“Shoot, I’d rather go ahead and play, especially when you lose a game,” Payne said. “You’re ready to play 30 minutes after the game is over.”
Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said he managed to watch a little bit of Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby on Monday. He got to see former Notre Dame baseball teammate Trey Mancini, now with the Baltimore Orioles.
Mancini has made a successful comeback this year after sitting out the 2020 season to undergo chemotherapy for stage 3 colon cancer. He reached the final round of the Home Run Derby before losing to New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso.
“I was on the team when he won the Home Run Derby at the Big East Tournament down in Clearwater, Florida, and I remember him saying to our assistant coach Chuck Ristano, ‘If I ever got to the MLB Home Run Derby, I’ll have you pitch to me,’ “ Connaughton said. “And (Ristano) pitched to him last night.”