Pregame introductions at Madison Square Garden usually prompt wild, optimistic cheers for the Knicks and subdued boos for the visiting team. But when the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was introduced Saturday night, the fans erupted in cheers.
Granted, the crowd was littered with Antetokounmpo jerseys as fans filled the Garden to get a glimpse of a player who might repeat as league MVP. Antetokounmpo has become a traveling show in himself, drawing the sort of fans that Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant once did — a beloved player unlike anyone else in the game.
If the Knicks were OK with the cheers — happy to make the Garden a welcoming place for a player coveted in the 2021 free-agent market if the Bucks can’t secure his future in the Midwest before then — they were left to figure out a way to stop him and stop the cheering on this night.
That never happened. There was no answer for Antetokounmpo or the best team in the NBA this season as the Knicks fell, 123-102.
Antetokounmpo had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in only 26 minutes for Milwaukee (26-4). Khris Middleton scored 23 points.
“They kept going all game,” said RJ Barrett, who had 17 for the Knicks. “If we made a run or not, they kept going all night. It’s tough when you have a stretch like we had in the third quarter when we don’t score. They have one of the best players in the world and they really play around him and they make their shots. It was tough.”
The Knicks trailed by 34 before losing by 15 to the Heat in Miami on Friday night and then fell behind by 29 against the Bucks, who beat them by 44 earlier this month. The Knicks had seemed boosted by the coaching change from David Fizdale to Mike Miller but now are 3-5 under Miller, and three of the losses have been blowouts.
By halftime Antetokounmpo had nearly piled up a triple-double with nine points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Before the third quarter was over, he had reached double-figures in all three categories, taking a seat as the lead ballooned to 29. He returned briefly when the Knicks (7-23) cut the lead below 20.
The Bucks were without starters Eric Bledsoe and Wesley Matthews. The problem for the Knicks is that while they were sending defenders in waves at Antetokounmpo, he was responding by finding open shooters outside the three-point line. The Bucks hit their first six attempts from beyond the arc and 7-foot Brook Lopez hit a season-high four three-pointers.
“It’s a challenge, honestly,” said Julius Randle (20 points). “They went 6-for-6 from the three-point line to start the game. That was our game plan, to make the other guys make shots.”
“I saw that,” Antetokounmpo said. “I definitely saw that. But I don’t think they were consistent with it. Obviously, they did a great job with it to begin the game and then when we realized we got to roll to the pocket and find guys in the pocket or on the wing because they’re trying to collapse as much as possible. But I think as the game went on, the paint opened up some more and we were able to get driving lanes.”
Giannis wasn’t even the only Antetokounmpo to receive a positive reception Saturday night. In the fourth quarter, the crowd politely applauded his older brother, former Knick Thanasis Antetokounmpo, when he came in to finish off what his brother had started.