After tallying a series-high 39 points on the TD Garden parquet Monday night, MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo was stumped during his postgame press conference.
If he were a member of the opposing team, how would he defend himself?
“Oh, man,’’ Antetokounmpo said, while teammate Eric Bledsoe chuckled to his left. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.’’
Determining the best way — or any way — to limit Antetokounmpo is the question the Celtics have been desperately trying to answer in their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. They seemingly devised a viable solution in Game 1, when Antetokounmpo noticeably struggled to exert himself in the paint, an area he’s been dominant all season long, and shot just 4 for 16 from 2-point range.
But things took a turn in Game 2 — and the top-seeded Bucks haven’t looked back since. After leveling the series at one apiece, Milwaukee stole both games in Boston to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Antetokounmpo has registered double-doubles in each of the past three victories, averaging 33.3 points and 13 rebounds. During that span, he’s shooting 30-for-51 from the field (58.8 percent) and a notable 4 for 10 from 3-point range (40 percent). He’s also reached the free throw line at least 10 times per game.
The 6-foot-11-inch forward has stayed aggressive, consistently getting downhill and keeping the Celtics on their heels.
“Giannis, it’s hard to find the words,’’ coach Mike Budenholzer said after Milwaukee’s 113-101 Game 4 win Monday. “What he does for our team, I think on both ends of the court, he’s so multifaceted [and] multidimensional.’’
Boston certainly had its chance to put its stamp on the Monday night’s game. With 8 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Antetokounmpo was sent to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. Just over a minute later, noted Celtics assassin Khris Middleton joined him after being whistled for his fourth as well.
“If we’re honest, you see Giannis and Khris go to the bench, you’re concerned,’’ Budenholzer said, in spite of his confidence in his bench.
Already in the free throw bonus, Boston had the perfect opportunity to build a cushion with their opponent’s two best players off the floor.
What happened was the complete opposite.
Led by veteran point guard George Hill, Milwaukee’s reserves outscored the Celtics, 19-10, to close the third quarter with an 8-point lead. Antetokounmpo checked back into the game to start the fourth and never checked back out.
His mind-set was straightforward: “Close the game out.’’
That, he did. Antetokounmpo scored 17 points, grabbed two offensive boards, and blocked a shot in the final 12 minutes, helping his team stave off a late push from the Celtics. His night culminated with an and-1 on a one-handed jam in the final minute.
“He’s just doing everything,’’ Budenholzer said. “You certainly don’t want to take him for granted. His teammates appreciate him, [as do] the coaches [and] myself. He’s special. But he’s very hungry. He wants more and he’s playing that way.’’
The individual statistics, however, don’t seem to matter to Antetokounmpo.
“All I’m thinking about is I just got to do whatever it takes to win,’’ he said. “You’re going to use this opportunity, and you’re going to waste this opportunity. Great teams and great players, when they find an opportunity like this, they don’t waste it. They got to take advantage of it.’’