Reigning MVP and current Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo was blunt when asked about his minutes in the Bucks Game 3 loss to Miami.
"I feel great. Yeah, I could play more," Antetokounmpo said.
After tweaking his ankle earlier in the game, his 34:54 of playing time could seemingly only be explained by an injury or health concern - Antetokounmpo was seen grimacing on multiple occasions after the incident.
"He's a guy that's gonna fight through everything. The medical, the sport performance group said that he was good to go and keep playing. He's out there competing and giving us everything he's got. I thought he did a lot of things well, but we all gotta do a little bit better," Bucks coach, Mike Budenholzer said postgame.
Given the critical status of the game for Milwaukee, the decision to reduce the MVP's minutes from Game 2 was the topic of conversation postgame.
"I think we, obviously, it's 48 minutes and you got to be good for the last 12. If anything, I think keeping us fresh and ready to go and compete and all those things - and, you know, Khris was in a little bit of foul trouble. It's a high level. If you're going as hard as these guys are in a playoff game, 35, 36 (minutes), I think that's pushing the ceiling."
As it currently stands, Antetokounmpo ranks 43rd in the NBA for minutes per game in the postseason at 33.2, up from the 30.4 he clocked per appearance in the regular season.
Antetokounmpo finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists in Game 3, as the Bucks cratered in the fourth quarter, outscored 40-13 in the final 12 minutes to leave their season on the precipice of disaster.
Budenholzer also decided against using his No. 1 Jimmy Butler defender, Wesley Matthews down the stretch.
"Just trying to balance out the group. I thought Donte gave us a lot of good minutes, I thought George gave us a lot of good minutes. All three of those guys are important to us, so we used all three of them. That was kind of the plan going in," Budenholzer said on benching Matthews.
Matthews sat at the 6:51 mark of the fourth, Butler would go on to score 10 of his 30 points in that period.
In Game 1, Matthews sat the final 4:51, in which Butler poured in 11 points.
A direct result of Matthews playing a meager 21 minutes was Khris Middleton spending extended time on Butler. Middleton fouled out of the game with 32 seconds remaining with five of his personal fouls resulting in trips to the free-throw line for Butler.
The Middleton-Butler matchup was the same one Budenholzer went to down the stretch in Game 1, before leaning hevavily on Matthews in Game 2 where Butler was restricted to just 3-for-8 shooting and 13 points.
The puzzling rotations come just 24 hours after Toronto head coach, Nick Nurse played Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby 40 plus minutes in a critical Game 3 against Boston that helped them avoid the same 3-0 hole that Milwaukee now find themselves in. Nurse has played his preffered starting five together a staggering 29 minutes more than Budenholzer has with his best group across seven games.
The Bucks will now need to create history in order to continue their pursuit of an NBA Championship - no team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
"You might as well make history while you're doing it. Cap off a great season here. So, it's the first time in the history of the NBA we're playing in the bubble. First time that a team can come back down from 3-0, so we gotta trust each other and continue to believe the season is not over. Just take one game at a time," Bucks point guard, George Hill said.
Antetokounmpo, with optimism rather than the frustration he appeared to show earlier, echoed Hill's sentiment.
"We can do it. We've done things that nobody believed in us we can do. I believe in my teammates, I trust my teammates, I love my teammates and I want my teammates to be confident, I'm confident. We can do it," Antetokounmpo said.
There will be talk of adjustments heading into Game 4 as the Bucks look to stay alive, but perhaps, it's as simple as playing your best players extended minutes.
Thus far, Budenholzer hasn't been willing to do so.
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