After Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a turnaround jumper in the lane to cap a personal 7-0 run and give his Milwaukee Bucks what turned out to be an insurmountable lead in an eventual 109-105 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, he celebrated by sitting down on the court inside Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center and staring straight into the camera with a smile on his face.
That smile remained as he walked back to the huddle, and as the few fans allowed into the building showered Antetokounmpo with boos. But, with a win in hand after a dominant performance — 32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in 43 minutes – the smile was still on Anteokounmpo’s face after the game when he was asked why he chose to celebrate that way.
“Is there something wrong with having fun?” Antetokoumnpo said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having fun. I just like to have fun. In the first half, I was not having fun. I kind of, you know, talked to myself at the half and said, ‘No matter how bad the game is, you can’t forget what you have to do, which is have fun.’
“Obviously there’s a couple times where I exaggerate, but I don’t want to take anything back. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to sit down.’ I was having fun. I was talking to my teammates, I was talking to them, I was just trying to be in the moment. But I was just having fun.”
It wasn’t nearly as much fun for the Sixers, however, who held the Bucks to 12-for-45 shooting in the first half overall, including 1-for-17 from 3-point range, and led by as many as 19 points before blowing it late. Philadelphia fell out of first place in the East thanks to the Brooklyn Nets winning at Indiana on Wednesday night.
Sixers center Dwight Howard, in particular, took exception to Antetokounmpo’s celebration.
“I wanted to go and Stone Cold Stunner him, but I had already got one tech,” Howard said, referring to a move popularized by WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. “It’s basketball. He wanted to have fun, but we’ll see these guys again. Today we allowed them to get back into the game. We did it. We can’t control that.
“But he had a hell of a game. Hit some tough shots late at the end of the game, reigning MVP, and he had a great game. I’m not one to talk trash or say anything negative, but we’ll see them again and it’ll be a different result.”
There was one rather large presence missing from this game: Sixers superstar Joel Embiid, who sat on the sideline in loafers and a hoodie and remains out with a bone bruise in his knee suffered in a fall last Friday in a win over the Wizards. But the energy and intensity on both sides felt reminiscent of a playoff game — and was a reminder of what could be in store in June, when these teams would currently be scheduled to face off in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Still, the Bucks nearly threw away the game, blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation, thanks to Sixers guard Furkan Korkmaz hitting a 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds to go to tie the score at 93. That’s when Antetokounmpo saved Milwaukee in overtime.
Ultimately, Milwaukee pulled out the kind of hard-fought, physical game on the road that it will need to win this spring if it wants to break through and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1970s.
“We knew we were playing terrible on the offensive end, missing shots,” said Bucks forward Khris Middleton. “But, at the same time, we all stayed together, we stayed positive and we knew there’s a lot of game left and we’d have a shot as long as we kept playing defense and kept playing the right way on the other end.
“At some point the game was going to turn and we were going to go on a run, and thankfully it did.”
It did, in large part, because of Antetokounmpo’s heroics. After Howard uncharacteristically made a long jumper to tie the score at 98 with 3:08 to go in overtime, Antetokounmpo scored on three straight possessions — a hard left hand drive for a layup; a pull-up 3-pointer; and that hesitation, turnaround jumper in the lane — that sent the score to 105-98 with 1:12 remaining, and all but ensured the Bucks would win.
“When the game starts, you try to get into your rhythm, but you’re not stepping the right way. … It’s just hard to get into a rhythm,” said Antetokounmpo, who scored 28 of his 32 points in the second half and overtime. “And the way I try to get into a rhythm is to get everybody involved. I try to move the ball a little bit, move my legs, move my body a little bit. But going into the second half, I wanted to be a little more aggressive, but I knew I could not come right out of the gate and be aggressive. I had to slowly build up to it.
“But going down the stretch, I was just trying to be aggressive. … My teammates need me to keep making the right play, and they need me to stay aggressive, so that’s what I tried to do.”
The jokes continued into Antetokounmpo’s Zoom call, as well, as he at one point ordered a cheesesteak — making sure he got one with cheese whiz on it — and he was asked where he came up with the idea to sit on the court.
“Guys, I haven’t seen that,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do at the time, and that’s what I did. I haven’t seen it. But, as I said, I was just trying to have fun. Trying to enjoy the moment.”
It turns out Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only one to have never seen it before.
“I was shocked myself, when I saw him do it,” Middleton said with a laugh. “But I don’t think it was out of any sign of disrespect, though I know some people might take it that way. Knowing him, these past weeks, months, whatever, he wants to have fun.
“I’d never seen it before either, but I’m glad he did it with a smile after a rough patch in that game.”