MILWAUKEE -- With just under 90 seconds to play on Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks were clinging to a two-point lead over the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Finals. The Bucks had done the hard part of battling back from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to take the lead, but now they had to hold on to it.
Needing a bucket, the Suns got the ball to a scorching-hot Devin Booker, who already had 40 points. He came sprinting up from the baseline to take a dribble handoff from Deandre Ayton and dropped his shoulder to get around PJ Tucker and downhill towards the basket. Sensing the danger, Giannis Antetokounmpo stepped towards Booker, but in the process left Ayton rolling to the rim all by himself.
From there, the Suns had the advantage -- or so it seemed. What followed was one of the best defensive plays in NBA Finals history.
Booker read the defense and lofted a pass to Ayton for a lob that should have tied the game. Instead, Giannis somehow turned, took one long step and exploded into the air to meet Ayton at the rim and swat the ball away. It was so incredible there was almost a delayed reaction as the capacity crowd inside Fiserv Forum tried to process what happened. In the media seats high above the floor, there were reporters with their hands on their head in disbelief.
Even Giannis admitted postgame that he thought he was going to get dunked on when he committed to trying to block the attempt. But he knew he had to make the effort, and explained how he was able to react so quickly and get the block.
"It didn't surprise me," Giannis said. "I saw it coming. Once I saw him put it in his one hand, he was too far for a layup. So I knew he was trying to lob, and I committed so much. You risk it. You kind of feel it. I felt him rolling to the rim behind me, so I knew the only chance to get a stop is just jump toward the rim and try to cover that angle for him to score."
"Usually a play like that, if I was on the opposite side, it's a dunk," Giannis continued. "But as I said, I didn't jump to block the ball. I jumped toward the rim. I feel like that's what kind of helped me put me in position to get the block. The rim was right here (motions with his hands) so I jumped right here (motions with his hands). So he could shoot the ball. If he shot the ball to the backboard, it's probably a goaltending. He tried to dunk it, and I was right there earlier than him."
It's easy to become a prisoner of the moment during the Finals and let the hyperbole flow. There's no hyperbole with this play. It really was one of the best blocks of all time when you consider the difficulty and the situation.
When the ball leaves Booker's hand, Giannis is still facing him and has his back to the basket. The timing, athleticism and strength necessary, to get his feet turned, jump off his bad leg and contest Ayton with enough force to stop the shot at the top of the square is remarkable. To say nothing of the fact that it preserved the Bucks' lead with 1:22 left in a must-win Finals game.
"I kind of said, in my opinion, it's the best block of all time," Pat Connaughton stated. "Obviously, we're a little biased and you can talk about the LeBron block as well. But as far as a block where he was covering the pick-and-roll, he had to judge where the pass was, where Ayton was catching it and trying to dunk it, above the box, it's about as impressive as you can get."
Giannis' block was the highlight of a terrific defensive effort by the Bucks down the stretch. In an ugly game where they struggled to score for long stretches and shot 39-for-97 from the field, the Bucks had to make plays on the other side of the ball. Over the final 5:52 of the fourth quarter, the Bucks held the Suns to 3-for-10 from the field and outscored the Suns 19-8 to escape with a 109-103 series-tying win.
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They did so in a number of ways, and thanks to a number of players. It was a true team effort.
With a little over four minutes left, the Suns were up by three and had a chance to extend their lead. Jrue Holiday set the tone by pressuring Booker well into the backcourt, which ate up extra time in the shot clock. By the time Booker used a screen and got Bobby Portis in isolation off the switch, there were only seven seconds left. Portis then sat down, kept Booker out of the paint and forced a miss.
On the next possession, Connaughton switched onto Chris Paul early, and the veteran point guard set up a high screen and roll, something the Suns have run to great success in the series. But not this time. Connaughton navigated the screen well and prevented Paul from getting into the paint. Khris Middleton came over to provide help and together they forced Paul into a tough pass that he threw away.
"Defensively, his athleticism and his ability to get to a contest and help us defensively, he's done it all year," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. "A couple big plays from Pat."
About a minute later, the Suns tried to go back to the high pick-and-roll. This time, Paul manages to split the defenders and get into the lane. Giannis, though, uses his length and recovery ability to get back into the play and prevent Paul's layup from getting anywhere near the rim.
As the clock ticked below two minutes, the score was tied and the Suns put the ball in Booker's hands. He called for Jae Crowder to give him a screen because he knew the Bucks would switch, and wanted to try and pick on Connaughton in isolation. No dice. Connaughton responded to the challenge and stuck right with Booker, who eventually had to settle for a tough pull-up jumper that hit the back iron.
"Yeah, I mean, I have confidence in my athleticism," Connaughton said. "I think I can defend at a high level. I think sometimes they are looking for a matchup and I think sometimes it's like a pride thing, right... All I thought at the end of the game was that he wasn't going to get by me, and I was going to be physical enough so it kind of threw him off when he did have to take the jump shot."
Finally, with just 40 seconds left and the Bucks still up by only two, we saw their efforts to hassle Paul pay off big time. Holiday again picked him up in the backcourt, and as Paul came off the screen, he again tried to split the defense and snake back into the middle of the floor. Only this time, Giannis got his hand down as low as Paul's dribble and forced him to cough it up.
"I think it's just making [Paul] uncomfortable," Holiday said. "Always keeping bodies behind him, two and three people and not really just getting a clear view of what he wants to do. It's not me by myself. It's definitely a team effort."