Giannis Antetokounmpo says the biggest challenge in the championship quest for the Milwaukee Bucks, who clinched a top seed in the NBA playoffs on Thursday, isn’t a rival, but the Bucks themselves.
The 25-year-old Greek forward scored 33 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for Milwaukee as the Bucks rallied from a 23-point deficit to defeat Miami 130-116 and clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference at an NBA-best 55-14.
“It was a good challenge for us,” said Antetokounmpo. “It’s good to face adversity. It’s good to be uncomfortable. It’s good to be down.
“It’s good to chase because that’s when you get better. You need challenges so you can improve as a team.”
The Bucks, who won their only NBA title in 1971, could face Miami in the second round of the playoffs with Toronto, Boston, Indiana and Philadelphia threats as well. But Milwaukee’s star forward sees the Bucks’ main worry as playing to their potential.
“Probably the biggest challenge for us is ourselves,” Antetokounmpo said.
“It’s ‘How are we going to play? How hard are we going to play? Are we going to play for one another? Are we going to defend hard? Are we going to make that extra effort?’
“It’s all about us.”
Khris Middleton had 33 points and eight assists and combined with Antetokounmpo to shoot 22-of-31 from the floor.
Duncan Robinson scored 21 points to lead the Heat, who are fourth in the East at 43-26. If the standings stay as they are, the Bucks and Heat could meet in round two of the playoffs.
It was the feature of the eighth day of NBA games in a quarantine bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to finish a regular season shut down on March 11 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Heat played without Jimmy Butler because of a foot injury and Goran Dragic due to an ankle injury, but Miami sank 13 3-pointers in the first half, the last by Bam Adebayo at the buzzer to give the Heat a 73-56 lead over the NBA’s top-rated defensive squad.
“We talked to one another and came out in the second half and played better,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re not going to let them think we’re soft. This is who we are.”
The Bucks opened the second half with a 26-8 run to pull ahead 82-81, their first lead since 17-16, and even after Antetokounmpo was whistled for his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter, Milwaukee surged.
“Overall, our defensive attention to detail was better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
The Bucks went on a 10-0 run, seizing a 104-103 lead with 7:55 remaining and launching what became a 31-8 spurt that sealed Milwaukee’s victory.
“From defense, our offense starts,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s who we are as a team. We play our best when we defend.”
Kawhi Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA crown last year, scored 29 points to lead the Los Angeles Clippers over Dallas 126-111, pulling them a game ahead of Denver for second in the Western Conference.
“It’s about executing, making sure we’re putting in the effort out there,” Leonard said. “Just getting in game shape, getting our legs ready and our minds.”
Suns 4-0 in bubble
Bahamian big man Deandre Ayton scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Devin Booker added 20 points and 10 assists as the Phoenix Suns improved to 4-0 in the bubble by defeating another isolation unbeaten, the Indiana Pacers, by 114-99.
The Suns improved to 30-39, one game behind ninth-place Portland in the Western Conference chase for a playoff spot.
Teams finishing eighth and ninth in the West will meet in a play-in series Aug. 15-16 to obtain a first-round date with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pacers, led by 25 points from Malcolm Brogdon, fell to 42-27, fifth in the East, a half-game ahead of Philadelphia.
Serbian guard Bogdan Bogdanovic scored a career-high 35 points, 19 in the first quarter, to lead Sacramento over New Orleans 140-125. Pelicans star rookie forward Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram each scored 24 points in a losing cause.