On Pro Basketball
Deandre Ayton seemed to be wide open next to the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo had other ideas.
MILWAUKEE — When the lob was in the air, it looked to be a sure dunk. The Phoenix Suns were down 2 with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s Game 4, and a basket would tie the game and give the Suns a puncher’s chance to push the Milwaukee Bucks to the brink of elimination in the N.B.A. finals.
Devin Booker, a skilled passer and exceptional scorer, was the one who tossed it. Deandre Ayton, the Suns center, seemed to be wide open next to the basket, and he had spent all season throwing down dunks off passes very much like this one. It was the kind of play that was the bread and butter of the Suns offense.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo had other ideas. When Ayton caught the lob and tried to stuff it through, the Bucks star rose up and met him at the rim.
“I thought I was going to be dunked on, to be honest,” Antetokounmpo said after the game.
He's a FREAK!! pic.twitter.com/psoObkEdef
Antetokounmpo said that if Ayton had tried to put the ball off the backboard instead of dunking it, Antetokounmpo would very likely have been called for goaltending. Essentially, in a split second, Antetokounmpo had to make a decision about where to jump. He guessed correctly.
“I didn’t jump to block the ball,” Antetokounmpo said. “I jumped toward the rim. I feel like that’s what kind of helped me put me in position to get the block.”
It was a block to remember. Basketball plays that outlive the moment require high stakes (when the block occurs), skill (how the block occurs), and ultimately, a positive aftermath (how the block impacted a series).
Among the best: LeBron James’s late Game 7 swat of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 N.B.A. finals against a favored team on the road. Tayshaun Prince of the Detroit Pistons had a game-sealing block on the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller in Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals with about 20 seconds left with Detroit up 2. In last year’s playoffs, Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat stuffed the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum in the closing seconds of overtime during the series opener of the Eastern Conference finals.
In terms of the stakes, Antetokounmpo’s doesn’t match James’s in a win-or-go home Game 7. But Antetokounmpo’s did come in a crucial N.B.A. finals game. If the Suns scored that basket and went on to win in the final minute, Milwaukee would have been down 3-1 with the series headed back to Phoenix. Instead, the Bucks won, 109-103, and tied the finals at 2.
It is in skill where Antetokounmpo’s block is set apart. What’s particularly remarkable about the play is that Antetokounmpo was initially guarding Booker off a pick and roll switch when the pass was thrown. But because Antetokounmpo is so quick, athletic and tall, he was able to both slightly disrupt Booker’s pass, and then recover to meet Ayton at the rim. Antetokounmpo might be the only player in the N.B.A. who could cover that much ground in such a short amount of time.
“The honest thought that was going through my head was more or less kind of like shock and awe,” the Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said of seeing the block up close. He added, “In my opinion, it’s the best block of all time. Obviously, we’re a little biased, and you can talk about the LeBron block as well.”
There is one big uncertainty about whether Antetokounmpo’s block will be talked about for years to come. History remembers winners, and if the Bucks do win this series, that block will be seen as a turning point. If the Suns pull it out, the play is likely to be a footnote. James, Adebayo and Prince all have one thing in common: All of their teams went on to win their series.
An example of the aftermath wiping away an exceptional playoff block is that same Pistons team that Prince was on in 2004. In the series before, Detroit faced the Nets in the semifinals. The series was tied at two. In Game 5, with the Nets up 2, Prince’s teammate Chauncey Billups had an open layup with four seconds left that would have tied the game. Richard Jefferson, the Nets forward, appeared seemingly out of nowhere to block the shot. He appeared to save the game for the Nets. But the lead wouldn’t last. Detroit improbably tied the game off a desperation heave from half-court by Billups. The Nets ultimately won the game, but the Pistons won the series and eventually, a championship — pushing Jefferson’s block out of sight.
Basketball stars are often judged for their scoring ability, and Antetokounmpo is among the best in the league in that category. However, as Wednesday night showed, he is one of the rare top scorers who carries his team on both ends of the floor.
A former Defensive Player of the Year, Antetokounmpo is a top help defender — essentially a player who roams the floor to create havoc for opposing teams. It wasn’t just the block on Ayton during the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, for example. With 8:09 left in the fourth and the Suns threatening to pull away with a 5-point lead, Antetokounmpo used his long arms to intercept an inbounds pass, drove it the length of the floor, and dunked it to top a further momentum shift.
Less than five minutes later, with the Bucks down 3, Antetokounmpo deflected another pass — this one from point guard Chris Paul — and threw it ahead to point guard Jrue Holiday for a fast break, Antetokounmpo’s third steal of the night. The next possession, Antetokounmpo blocked Paul, who is an excellent finisher around the rim, and then assisted on Connaughton’s go-ahead 3-pointer. In addition to scoring 26 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out eight assists, Antetokounmpo was equally potent on the defensive end — and that’s not something many N.B.A. players can lay claim to.
This was not a game that came down to one play, but it may be remembered that way because of the level of athleticism required to execute Antetokounmpo’s block.
“That’s an N.B.A. finals special moment right there,” the Bucks coach, Mike Budenholzer, said. “And we’re going to need more of them.”