Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo made his much-awaited return from a hyperextended left knee, but he couldn’t lift the Milwaukee Bucks over Phoenix in the NBA Finals opener.
The 26-year-old Greek forward, who missed two games after suffering the injury last week, scored 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds for the Bucks in a 118-105 road loss in the best-of-seven championship series.
“I can run. I can jump. I can set screens. I can rebound the ball. I’m happy I’m out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was worried I’d be out for a year. Two games and I’m back. I’m happy.”
It was a game-time decision to have Antetokounmpo in the starting lineup after a light pre-game shootaround.
“He had a good workout before the game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think you’ve got to listen to Giannis first. He felt good.
“He was cleared and he wanted to go and everybody was on the same page. It’s just a credit to him and just the work he puts in. For him to be back playing in game one, it’s really impressive what he did.”
Antetokounmpo said his rehabilitation efforts were 24 hours a day for a week, from weightlifting to treatment and elevating his leg.
“It wasn’t easy but I was willing to do it and the medical staff had a great program for me to recover and not have a lot of swelling,” he said.
“I’m just happy I’m able to help my teammates in any way possible and participate in my first NBA Finals and put my attention on that and not if my knee hurts.”
Bucks teammate Khris Middleton knew it hurt during he rehab work.
“We know he’s giving it his all. He has been on a crazy rehab schedule. We know that’s not easy, especially the injury that he had.
“He did say it hurt, it hurt a lot. But he still found a way to get over it, play through a little bit of pain and fight for it. It’s great.
“I don’t think he’s fully 100% but he’s close to it to go out and play and give it his all. He looked pretty good – driving guys, playing through contact, dunking some, jumping, running, springing, whatever.”
Budenholzer was also happy with Antetokounmpo’s four assists, two steals and blocked shot as well as his scoring, rebounding and defensive work over 35 minutes on the court in his comeback appearance.
“There were a lot of good things considering what he has been through,” Budenholzer said. “Some great play-making, passing, defending the rim.
“He’s a rhythm guy so I’m excited about how he’ll improve from game one to game two. We’ll see how he feels. But I think play-wise, he always gets better when he plays.”
Antetokounmpo went 7-of-12 from the free throw line, where road fans always count to 10 once he gets the ball to signal a violation or try to make him rush at attempt.
“It’s going to follow me the rest of my career so I have to embrace it and learn to live with it,” Antetokounmpo said.
“With 20,000 people yelling 1-2-3-4, I notice it. I embrace it. The first free throw I hear it. On the fifth one, I’m not. I just have to focus on my routine.”
For Jrue Holiday, it was just good to see him on the court.
“I just know we have our best player back,” he said.