Think back in NBA Finals history and if you’re of a certain age with New York roots, there is no more compelling image, a remnant of grainy video, than May 8, 1970, when Willis Reed came trotting out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden in Game 7. Even if you weren’t born yet you’ve seen the clips of him hobbling, dragging his leg behind him, as he hit his first two jumpers against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers.
That those were his only points of the night are forgotten to history sometimes, the Knicks going on to a convincing win with Walt Frazier carrying the bulk of the load. But think of it, have you seen Frazier highlights from that night? Have you seen anything compared to what you’ve seen of Reed? Reed’s decision to get his injured right thigh shot up with cortisone and join his teammates for this game is what history remembers.
And now consider what you saw Tuesday night in Phoenix when, after a week of mystery, Giannis Antetokounmpo was in the starting lineup with his Bucks teammates for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That week included a time that Antetokounmpo admitted that he didn’t think he’d be on the floor Tuesday and really, he wondered if he might be sidelined for a year with the hyperextended left knee.
It was that sort of heroic, historic return. You know the rest - team is inspired, fans go crazy and it’s all in a book someday being recounted for generations. Except Tuesday, while Antetokounmpo was back and far healthier than anyone could have anticipated, the Suns still easily coasted to a 118-105 win.
"I'm happy that I'm out there, and you know, at the end of the day, I haven't watched the clip," Antetokounmpo said after Game 1 was over. "But when the play happened, I thought I'm going to be out for a year, you know. I'm just happy that two games later, I'm back."
Antetokounmpo played 35 minutes and contributed 20 points, 17 rebounds and even had one memorable chase-down block, and maybe by the end he shouldn’t have been out there, resting and rehabilitating for another day. He soared to the rim on the opening play, getting fouled as the Bucks floated a lob for him to try to dunk. Maybe he wasn’t 100%, but he wasn’t far off either.
But what seemed like a blank canvas for history to write another chapter of the legend of Antetokounmpo instead became a showcase for Chris Paul and the Suns. And Paul has his own story for history to tell, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer making his first Finals appearance and on this night he lived up to the moment, scoring a game-high 32 points and handing out nine assists.
And that’s what history tells you of these games. It is moments. And it is who lives up to them. Without the win, the celebration that followed, where would Willis Reed’s moment reside in history? And when you figure out that place, is Antetokounmpo’s return destined to head there?
"I can't predict the future," Antetokounmpo said. "Hopefully, I feel better and as we move forward I feel better, and as a team we can get one out of Phoenix. But as I said, I can't predict the future. I might wake up [Wednesday] and my knee might be swelled up. Hopefully, I wake up [Wednesday] and I'm good; hopefully, I wake up two days from now and I'm good, and hopefully, we can go out there and compete."
It may just be a symptom of what has become a regular problem for the Bucks, who seem to come out struggling in Game 1 of every series. But it has to be alarming that while Mike Budenholzer’s team fell into the same sort of traps that they have throughout their postseason run, getting caught in awkward switches (please, I beg of you, coach, no more Brook Lopez isolated defensively against Paul and Devin Booker). The Bucks shot from three well, unlike some of their struggles this postseason when it was a hit or miss night. And still, they seemed to be playing at a different speed than the Suns. And there is no one on Milwaukee who can play athletically with anyone more than Antetokounmpo, at least if he is right.
"I didn't prove nothing," he said afterward. "I feel like I have nothing to prove to anybody. I just try to do my job and try to enjoy the process of playing a basketball game and being in the NBA Finals. I feel like we all are extremely pleased. We have a great team. I've said in the past we work hard all year long to be in this position.
"We have to like live in the moment and try to take as much as possible from this experience. Because you can never take moments like this for granted. But yeah, I didn't have to prove nothing to my teammates. My teammates know who I am, what kind of person I am on the court, off the court. You know, try not to let them down. But they know if I'm physically capable to play, I'm going to play. They know if I can help them in any way, they know I'm going to try to help them in any way. They know who I am. But the message to the team is that we are in the NBA Finals and enjoy the experience, and now wasn't able to get Game 1 but we have to focus and get Game 2."
Game 2 and the rest of the series is where history awaits to be told for Antetokounmpo.