MILWAUKEE — Although Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo would never prefer to sit out for an extended stretch of games, he acknowledged after Milwaukee’s 117-113 victory over the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day that his stint in the NBA’s health and safety protocols gave him an opportunity for a much-needed mental and physical break.
Antetokounmpo missed five games after testing positive for COVID-19, but in his first game since Dec. 13, he didn’t miss a step. He scored 29 of his 36 points in the second half, adding 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks to lead the Bucks to a comeback victory over the Celtics after trailing by as many as 19 points.
“He gutted it out. You could see the fatigue,” Bucks forward Wesley 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.”
Boston held Antetokounmpo to only five shots in the paint as the Celtics started off fast in the first half, but Antetokounmpo was much better at getting to the rim in the second half, finishing 9-for-12 in the paint after halftime.
And he was able to impose his will defensively, as well, meeting Jayson Tatum at the rim with eight seconds remaining in the game and forcing Tatum to pass the ball to Robert Williams III, which resulted in a block by Antetokounmpo on the recovery.
“He’s got that extra ability to make multiple-effort plays defensively with his length,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo. “He can cover so much ground and be just impactful.”
Antetokounmpo said he was surprised after initially testing positive for the virus but that he eventually started to experience some mild symptoms during his quarantine stint. However, he spent most of the time in his basement just trying to keep himself busy — “watching movies, bunch of snacks, bunch of fluids,” he said — before he was able to return to the court for individual workouts the past two days.
“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.’”
Injuries and illness have depleted the Bucks’ rotation for several stretches this season, but Saturday’s game was one of Milwaukee’s healthiest since the start of the campaign. Antetokounmpo cleared health and safety protocols along with Bobby Portis and Donte DiVincenzo, who was playing in his first game since he had ankle surgery during the first round of last year’s playoffs.
“It was weird: It literally went from seven or eight players to like 15,” Milwaukee guard Jrue Holiday said. “It was hard to do layup lines because we didn’t have enough people. Now it’s crowded. The locker room is so much louder now, so many more people. But I’d rather have that.”
Even with their lineup in flux so frequently, the Bucks have still been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Consider their performance in crunch time on Saturday as an example.
The Bucks contested five of the Celtics’ six field goal attempts in clutch time, holding Boston to four points on 1 of 6 shooting. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s Big Three combined to score eight of its final 11 points on offense (3 of 6 shooting) during that stretch, and a steal from Holiday on Tatum set up a 3-pointer from Matthews to give the Bucks a lead with 30 seconds remaining.
“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.”