PHOENIX (AFP) – Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, out with a hyperextended left knee, is improving but remains questionable for the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday’s opening game of the NBA Finals.
The 26-year-old Greek forward conducted a private on-court workout, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, but signs were inconclusive if he would face the host Phoenix Suns when the best-of-seven showdown starts.
“He’s making progress, but I don’t have expectations either way,” said Budenholzer. “He has done court work again today. He’s making progress.
“We’re pleased that he’s making progress.”
The Bucks, seeking their first NBA title in 50 years, are 7-5 this season without Antetokounmpo, who injured his knee in a loss to Atlanta in game four of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bucks won twice without him to reach their first final since 1974 against the Suns, who seek their first NBA crown.
“Guys have done a great job of adjusting with him not out there in two of the most important games of our season,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said.
“When Giannis is out there, a lot of times we can just give him the ball and let him go to work and let him orchestrate a lot of things out there.
“Without him, we have to do it by committee, moving the ball around, driving it a little bit more, playing just a little bit faster with a little bit of different flow.”
Antetokounmpo has averaged 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists a game with a dominating inside game. It has taken a team effort to replace him and stay successful.
“It’s really each man taking a little share of that load,” Budenholzer said. “We may have to do that again in game one until Giannis gets back.
“We understand what we need to do regardless of who we’re playing with and the circumstances we have.”
Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton was among those who filled in for the Greek star, especially in a defensive role.
“You can’t replace a player the caliber of Giannis, the things he does on a nightly basis on both sides of the ball,” said Connaughton.
“A bunch of guys have stepped up in his absence, but it has been a collective group effort. It has been playing together, sharing the basketball, defending as a team and gang rebounding.”
Antetokounmpo becomes a focus for defenders that opens other Milwaukee players such as center Brook Lopez.
“Giannis attracts a lot of attention. He’s a huge part of what we do,” Lopez said. “But with or without Giannis, we have to play great team basketball, rely on each other and play great defense.”
Suns coach Monty Williams sees how the Bucks, sparked by Lopez and Middleton plus Jrue Holiday, stay aggressive driving to the hoop without Antetokounmpo.
“The pressure they put on the paint has been pretty consistent, even without Giannis, but you see a different way of doing it now,” Williams said.
“There seems to be a different way of attacking the paint. And then all of their guys that crash the boards. They haven’t stopped playing the way they want to play.”
Bahamas big man Deandre Ayton has been formidable inside for the Suns and has a plan for whenever he faces Antetokounmpo.
“Basically just being the first man on defense, making sure I’m a presence,” he said. “Just matching his physicality. This is a guy whose motor is insane and we just have to match it and compete.”
Phoenix’s Cameron Johnson said the Bucks have plenty of respect from the Suns with or without Antetokounmpo.
“Having a guy like that play or not play, it changes things,” Johnson said. “But no matter what, they’ve got guys that can really play.
“What we have to do, we just have to bring it to them, be physical, and take the fight to them.”