The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts after making a basket during...

The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts after making a basket during the second half of an NBA game against the 76ers on Tuesday in Philadelphia. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

Giannis Antetokounmpo rolled into Barclays Center Thursday night looking as if  he was gunning for his third MVP.

Antetokounmpo, who won the award in 2018-19 and 2019-20, made quite a statement Tuesday night in Philadelphia, outdueling fellow MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Not only did Antetokounmpo score a game-high 40 points, he had 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and a steal. Most impressively he delivered the game-winning block on Embiid to give the Bucks a 118-116 victory.

Entering Thursday’s game against the Nets, the two-time MVP had scored 20 or more points in seven of his last eight games. All told, he has scored 30 plus 32 times this season to raise his scoring average to 29.8 points per game. That ties him with Embiid for second in the league, behind LeBron James, who is averaging 30.13.

“He’s one of those players that have established himself that his points are almost like absolute guaranteed,” said the Nets' Kevin Durant, who won the MVP in 2013-14 when he was with Oklahoma City. “It’s about playing him physical, making it as tough as you can.”

Should the 27-year-old Antetokounmpo nudge out Embiid and last year’s winner Nikola Jokic of Denver, he would become just the ninth player to win three or more MVP awards.

That elite group includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Bill Russell (5), Michael Jordan (5), Wilt Chamberlain (4), James (4), Moses Malone (3), Larry Bird (3), and Magic Johnson (3).

Durant said Antetokounmpo is also getting a lot of support from his team. Milwaukee started season slowly, but entered Thursday night having won 11 of their last 14 games.

“From top to bottom they have a great team,” Durant said. “They are playing well off each other with continuity. It’s much more than Giannis, but you know his points are going to happen. So you just have to make them as tough as possible.”

Thursday night’s Nets-Bucks game could very well be a preview of a first-round playoff series. The Nets, who entered the night in  the No. 8 play-in position, could would end up playing Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The Bucks started the night in second place, a game behind Miami and a game ahead of the 76ers.

In the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, Antetokounmpo was instrumental in the Bucks’ 4-3 series win over the Nets with averages of 31.9 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists.  It was Antetokounmpo’s foot that Kyrie Irving landed on in Game 4 of that series. The result was an ankle injury that knocked him out of the playoffs.

With James Harden having injured his hamstring, Durant was left to carry the team alone. Durant came within inches of winning it all when  he hit a long jumper with a second left in regulation. The ball originally looked like a three-pointer, which would have won the game, but Durant’s foot had stepped over the line and the game went to overtime, where the Bucks won.

In their first three meetings of the season, the Nets didn’t have much more success against Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee went 2-1 in those games with the Greek Freak averaging 20.7 points 11.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists.

Antetokounmpo said he rarely feels pressure to take charge during a game, that he just goes by the feel of the game.

“There’s gonna be times that you can take over the game. There’s gonna be times that you’ve just got to play, feel the game,” Antetokounmpo said after the win over the 76ers. “No matter what happens, I have to stay aggressive because I know that’s what I want, that’s when I enjoy basketball the most. There’s not a moment throughout the game that I say, ‘I’ve got to take over the game right now.’ I just trust my instincts.”


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