Giannis returns from two-week absence to dominate Celtics

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he tried to set low expectations for himself when he returned to action Saturday for the first time since entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols on December 12.

So much for that.

In front of a national television audience on Christmas, Antetokounmpo put up exactly the kind of numbers one would expect from him – 36 points, 12 rebounds and five assists – and the Milwaukee Bucks rallied in the closing minutes for a 117-113 victory over the Boston Celtics.

“It feels good,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was excited to be back, excited to be around my team-mates and the fans again and excited to play the game.”

Antetokounmpo got off to a slow start and scored seven points before halftime, Milwaukee trailed a COVID-depleted Celtics team 35-22. He shook off any remaining rust with 17 points in the third then added 12 more after Boston took a 13-point lead with five minutes to play.

“He’s a guy who likes his reps, the touches and feels he gets,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It took a half for him to kind of knock the cobwebs off but he had a great second half and I’m really impressed by him.

“He’s got that extra ability to make multiple-effort plays defensively with his length. He can cover so much ground and be just impactful.”

Antetokounmpo also added two blocks to his box score on his very impressive return and he admitted that although being on the sidelines is frustrating, he found the rest rejuvenating.

“I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed it,” Antetokounmpo said. “Selfishly, I think I needed the break. But at the end of the day, when you turn on the TV and see your teammates, guys out there fighting to try and win a game, you’re like, ‘Man, you want to be out there.'”

Boston had just eight players available after putting Dennis Schroder in the protocols earlier Saturday, but took control for most of the game behind Jaylen Brown, who scored 14 of his 25 points in the opening quarter. Jayson Tatum also scored 25 for Boston, which led by as many as 19.

Milwaukee trimmed the deficit to one when Middleton knocked down a three with 3:39 left in the third. But the Celtics answered with five straight and opened the fourth with a 8-0 run, including six from Parker, who converted a three-point play to make it 102-90 with 10:15 to play.

Portis’ put-back with eight minutes left was the start of the Bucks’ charge. They tied the game at 111 when Antetokounmpo scored and drew a foul with 1:26 left. He missed the free throw and Brown made a pair on the other end to put Boston back in front.

But Wes Matthews buried a three for a 114-113 lead with 30.3 seconds left, and the Bucks held on.

“He gutted it out. You could see the fatigue,” Bucks forward Matthews said. “But he’s just one of those guys. He’s a robot, he’s a machine. He tells himself he feels no pain. He keeps going, he keeps attacking, he keeps putting pressure on everybody. The greatest thing about him is, he’s not content with any of it.”

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day

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Antetokounmpo dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day

Indeed, Antetokounmpo was the driving force behind their first title in 50 years and the Greek Freak is looking forward to the Bucks building cohesion as a unit as the team aims to repeat the feat and defend their crown.

The prevalence of Covid-19 and the subsequent requirement for stars to isolate as part of the league’s health and safety protocols will not make that easy though.

“We’ve got to keep connecting with one another,” Antetokounmpo said. “I feel like we’ve not played so much with one another. A guy comes back, a guy gets in health and safety protocol. A guy comes back, a guy gets injured. We have to connect as much as possible, even in practice or the game just to keep that chemistry going. Because I think we have a very great team, and if we stay humble and stay hungry, great things are going to happen to us in the future.”