The Buck didn’t stop at the three-point line.
He didn’t stop at the free-throw line, either.
Again and again, Giannis Antetokounmpo used his dribble to bulldoze through, or past, Clippers defenders and into the paint, his size and 54 points overcoming every obstacle Thursday in a 106-105 Milwaukee comeback — including what had once been a 21-point Clippers lead.
Built like the Parthenon and given free rein to bring the ball upcourt, the better to gather a head of steam for one of his drives, Antetokounmpo appeared unstoppable when it mattered, his 20 points outscoring all the Clippers combined in the fourth quarter, 20-18.
“We knew Greek was going to score,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, “I didn’t know he was going to score 54.”
But the Clippers didn’t fall to 29-26 and narrowly missed a rare opportunity to beat a winning team because of Antetokounmpo alone. Under duress by the defense of Bucks guards Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews, who eschewed switches in order to stick to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers’ offense shot just eight-for-25 in the fourth quarter and didn’t score at all in the final 3 minutes, 51 seconds, an eerily similar result to the last time Leonard and George faced the Bucks here two years ago and the offense again faltered when isolation plays failed to generate points in the final minutes.
After a career-high 11 consecutive games with at least 24 points, Leonard missed two shots in the game’s final 18 seconds with a chance to win.
Leonard first tried working on Holiday, the newly named All-Star reserve, but his fadeaway jumper misfired. Before the Clippers could foul, Antetokounmpo threw the ball out of bounds. Afforded another chance, Leonard again controlled the ball one on one. He tried isolating against Matthews, but was cornered and his jump shot again missed as four teammates watched on the court’s other side as time expired.
“A lot of easy shots we missed,” Leonard said. “Give credit to them, they played amazing defense.”
Leonard made seven of his 26 shots, shooting one for eight in the fourth quarter, for 17 points. George, named an All-Star reserve before tipoff, had 16 points on six-of-16 shooting, but made one of his five shots in the final quarter. Norman Powell, meanwhile, didn’t take a shot in the final 4:17 despite a team-high 26 points.
“I told [Leonard], I told P, I mean, the shots he’s missing, those are the ones that he work on,” Powell said. “I’ve seen him make those countless times, that’s why I’m not really tripping if I get the ball or not, man.
“… I’ve seen him make that from the corner fading, midrange to send us to the [2019 Eastern Conference] finals. You’ve just got to live and die with those things like that but those guys know they’re going to adjust next time they’re in that situation, I think it’s going to be a different result.”
Lue also said he was fine with the shots taken late because when Milwaukee (35-17) didn’t double-team the team’s stars, it didn’t create an opening for the ball to swing to Powell on the other side, allowing him to attack his defender closing out.
“Kawhi, I like his matchup every night,” Lue said. “If we can post Kawhi, get him to his spots, I like that.”
Victorious two days earlier when overcoming a 19-point deficit, the Clippers led by 15 in the first quarter by stopping Antetokounmpo’s first attempts to get to the rim, and 21 in the third quarter. When Milwaukee pulled ineffective center Brook Lopez — the Bucks were outscored by 32 points in his 23 minutes — and got Holiday going offensively in the third quarter after Holiday’s one-for-nine shooting start, the game tilted toward Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo, a most valuable player of the regular season and NBA Finals, kept running downhill toward the rim.
Of his 54 points, 30 were scored in the paint, on 65% shooting. Foul trouble on starting center Ivica Zubac forced the Clippers — who don’t have a backup big man in their rotation, one week before the trade deadline — into a small lineup instead of allowing the Clippers to mirror their 7-footer’s minutes with Antetokounmpo’s. Zubac, handed the hardest assignment of the night to blunt Antetokounmpo’s brute-force offense, fouled out with 1:47 remaining.
“We did what we were supposed to,” George said, “all the way up until the last couple minutes.”
But this game revealed as much about the chess match between two title contenders as it did about the way the Clippers view their rotation one week before the trade deadline.
Lue has said he prefers a nine-man rotation. With Marcus Morris Sr. returning to the starting lineup after a four-game absence because of a bruised rib, guard Luke Kennard went back to the bench and did not play in a coach’s decision connected to Lue’s avoidance of three-guard lineups he once used to feature off the bench. In recent weeks, he has acknowledged the defensive shortcomings of playing three small reserve guards together is untenable, and so while Powell and Reggie Jackson saw time against the Bucks, Kennard watched as Lue’s nine-man rotation went as deep as Robert Covington, the 6-foot-8 forward. But even Covington played only six minutes, including none in the second half.
Still unanswered is John Wall’s role moving forward, upon his return to action. Wall has missed the last 11 games with an abdominal injury and said Thursday morning’s shootaround was the first time he’d played full-court since the Jan. 13 injury; Wall said he doesn’t have a target return date. In his absence Jackson has reestablished his value as a guard Lue trusts in closing games, which he did Thursday as well as two days before in Chicago.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.