Giannis, Tatum and the kinds of efforts superstars deliver in the playoffs
2: 05 AM ET
Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer
- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs seven years
- Author of two books
MILWAUKEE — The Giannis Antetokounmpo–Jayson Tatum rivalry is here. It is shaping the present of the Eastern Conference, and it may continue well into the future.
Antetokounmpo is putting up Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal numbers. Tatum is breaking the records of all those retired jerseys for his 75-year-old storied franchise that has 17 championships.
And the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks haven’t even played Game 7 yet.
This series is black-and-blue, with the Advil and ice bag counts increasing by the game. Antetokounmpo & Tatum created art in Game 6, Friday night. The Bucks star was slamming Tatum with two-by-4s, and the Celtics star responded with high-arching dagger jumpers. Each punch was cruelly extended to the stunned Bucks’ crowd.
The Celtics won 108-95 to even the series, winning for the second time in Milwaukee in the past week. These teams are 4-2 on the road, proving how close they are.
Antetokounmpo had 44 points, 20 rebounds and six assists, the third player in history to have a 40/20/5 game in the playoffs, the other two being Chamberlain and O’Neal. He has three 40-point, 10-rebound games this series.
He’s the third player ever to have three 40-point games against the Celtics in the playoffs. The other two are Jerry West in the historic 1969 Finals, when he won the MVP despite the Los Angeles Lakers losing, and LeBron James, who did it in 2018 in one of the most prolific series of his career. Tatum is right there alongside Antetokounmpo. After outscoring, outrebounding, out-assisting, out-stealing and outshooting Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant in the first round, Tatum is going right at the current Finals MVP in this series.
Tatum had 46 points Friday, the second-most points for the Celtics in an elimination game in team history behind only Hall of Famer Sam Jones. He’s got two 45-point games in this playoff run — something Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce or Bob Cousy never did for the Celtics.
When the Bucks reduced an 18-point lead down to five with six minutes to play — flashbacks from the Celtics’ blown 14-point fourth quarter lead two days earlier came to mind — Tatum hit a devastatingly long 3-pointer that broke the momentum in perhaps the night’s biggest moment.
” This was our season on the line and you know that, so you leave it all on floor.” Tatum stated. “That’s my mindset, that’s the mindset we all have. I didn’t intend to make any mistakes or leave anything out. “
He made 14 contested shots, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, demoralizing the Bucks and their crowd. They all came to Fiserv Forum expecting to see the Bucks win. This title-winning team had won eight of its previous closeout-game opportunities.
After a dud in Game 3 in which he played his worst game of the postseason, shooting 4-of-19, Tatum vowed to be better. In the past three games, Tatum has averaged 37 points and 9.3 rebounds. Setting an early tone for the Celtics, he scored 18 points in the first half to give the Celtics a 10-point halftime lead.
The big shots in the fourth quarter, in which Tatum scored 16, were even more valuable. This was the kind of effort that a superstar puts forth in elimination games.
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks for moments like that,” said Marcus Smart, who scored 21 points. “I was telling him all the time, ‘Just be yourself, man.’ He was. “
Antetokounmpo, playing without the injured Khris Middleton, has ratcheted up his already unfathomable production. He’s averaging 35.3 points, 13.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the series. On Friday night, he went 14-of-15 at the foul line.
Tatum is a different player than Antetokounmpo. They are both blessed with the basketball triplet of height, versatility, and skill. Antetokounmpo was a fan of Magic Johnson and Kevin Garnett as a child. Tatum idolized Kobe Bryant growing up. It’s evident in their games. It’s not the best matchup.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to watch their actions over the past two weeks without wanting to see more.
Making predictions and proclamations about how many times this couple might do it again is foolish. There is no way to know. But Antetokounmpo is 27, Tatum 24. They’ll play again this year. The winner will feel like he won a prize fight and the loser will be devastated and wait for another chance. What more can a basketball fan want?
” I was excited to play Game 6,” Tatum stated. “This was a huge moment for me and the team. We believed, and we were truly convinced, that we could win. It was evident. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.