It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

Randle raises the level

Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

 

On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

"That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

Julius just too important?

Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

 

Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

Big spenders or big savers

As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

A rare watching brief

The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

Verdict: Evolution

Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

After waiting half a century for a title, Milwaukee Bucks fans turned out by the thousands on Thursday to celebrate their team's NBA championship. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of Milwaukee's players and staff received a hero's welcome as they paraded through the city atop busses and trucks.

Two days after closing out the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals for their first championship since 1971, the Bucks and their fans did not appear to have returned to earth. 

"Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!" Antetokounmpo told the adoring crowd. "This is our city, man. We did it. It's unbelievable." 

Earlier, Antetokounmpo looked overwhelmed as thousands chanted "MVP!" while his bus rolled down the parade route.

"I'm proud of my team-mates, proud of the whole organisation for everything we did all year," Antetokounmpo said.

"We put in extremely unbelievable work, we believed in ourselves, we went out there ready to compete, and right now I'm extremely happy. I still can't believe this is happening, but I'm trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy it as much as possible with you guys, with my team-mates, and with everybody." 

While Milwaukee's fans had waited a lifetime for a title, the players realised lifelong dreams as well.

None of them had previously won an NBA championship, and some, like Middleton, had lived the other end of the spectrum. 

His first season with the Bucks was 2013-14, when they went a league-worst 15-67. 

"It's just been a long time coming," Middleton said. "I've been here eight years, struggled, been through a lot of ups and downs, but we finally got the job done, for sure." 

That they did, despite losing the first two games of the Finals to the Suns - just as they had to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before rallying to win in seven games. 

"Each time we were down 0-2, all we did was get closer," Middleton said. "Some teams separate, some teams point fingers. We never pointed fingers, we never quit on each other. All we did was come closer and find a way to try and figure it out." 

The New Orleans Pelicans have appointed former Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green as their new head coach.

Green's appointment was delayed due to his commitments with Phoenix, who made it to the NBA Finals before Giannis Antetokounmpo ended their hopes to claim Milwaukee Bucks' first title since 1971.

Before joining the 2021 Western Conference champions, Green enjoyed a three-year spell at the Golden State Warriors, where he worked as an assistant coach under Steve Kerr as they won back-to-back NBA Championships in 2017 and 2018.

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin praised Green for his "tireless work ethic and authenticity of character" as he announced the new head coach on Thursday.

"He brings a vast amount of basketball knowledge and experience to our team as both a coach and former player, along with exceptional leadership qualities and an innate ability to connect with players, staff and fans alike," Griffin said.

"We could not be more excited to welcome Willie and his family to New Orleans."

Green spent 12 years as a player in the NBA and appeared in 731 regular season games between 2003-15, reaching the playoffs seven times.

In his previous role with Phoenix, the Suns' defensive coordinator oversaw the NBA's sixth-best defensive rating, while he worked as head coach for the NBA Summer League in 2019, where he managed a 3-1 record in Las Vegas.

"I want to thank Mrs. Benson [Pelicans governor], David Griffin and the entire Pelicans organisation for having faith in me to lead this talented group of players moving forward," Green added.

"It's a blessing and an honour to get this opportunity in a special place like New Orleans. I look forward to getting to work and immersing myself and my family into the local community."

Green takes over from Stan Van Gundy, who mutually agreed to leave the Pelicans despite spending just the one year in charge.

Van Gundy's side disappointed last campaign as they went 31-41 to quash any playoffs hopes they may have had at the start of the year.

Green, who becomes the third-youngest coach in the NBA, may now look to build his team around first-round NBA 2019 Draft pick Zion Williamson, who has endured a tumultuous start to life in New Orleans.

 

France are expecting the United States to come out firing when the men's basketball competition at the Tokyo Olympics begins.

Team USA are favourites to win a fourth consecutive gold at the Games despite losing two exhibition games in a mixed build-up period to the tournament.

They open their Group A campaign against France in Saitama on Sunday.

France defeated the Americans in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals and head coach Vincent Collet expects that to be on the minds of their opponents.

He said: "We also know that they want to beat us because two years ago we did it in China - so we know what to expect."

Collet is aware that France's Olympics fate is unlikely to be determined by their group game with the USA, even if it is an occasion to savour.

Asked if it was an advantage to play USA first, he said: "I don't know. It's always a very tough game. It's a special game, but for us it’s just the beginning of the competition.

"I would hope that we play a good game but whatever happens we will need to beat the Czech Republic in the second one, which is probably even more important.

"The preparation has been up and down. We didn't have a couple of players until last week so it has hurt the preparation a little bit."

Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier are two of the five NBA players in the 12-man France roster.

Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green and Devin Booker are among the leading names playing for the USA.

Matthew Dellavedova is clear Australia have come to Tokyo with the objective of dethroning the United States and claiming the Olympic gold medal in basketball.

Winners of the last three golds, the USA are strong favourites to make it four in a row, though Australia and Spain are among the teams who should provide competition.

Team USA had a far-from-ideal Olympics preparation, losing to Australia in an exhibition game as well as suffering a defeat to Nigeria, while they have also lost some key players to withdrawals.

Kevin Durant said this week the main rivals of USA will go into the Games confident of producing an upset and that their star-studded roster has had "a slap in the face".

While Dellavedova is aware of the scale of the task to beat USA in competitive action, he is clear about the target Australia have set.

Australia lost to Spain in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals and also fell at the last-four stage at Rio 2016, so the former NBA champion wants to take the last steps to glory.

"The bar has been set since before Rio 2016 and the goal has not changed," former Cleveland Cavaliers man Dellavedova said.

"We know we have come up short in Rio and in China [at the World Cup] but the goal is the same.

"We want the gold medal, and we know how tough it is going to be.

"I thought we had a good week [of exhibition games] but you don't really know until you play anyone else. It's still early.

"There's a lot of things we've got to get better at, but incorporating the new guys in, it's been a lot of fun. They've fitted right in, brought a lot of energy and it's been good."

Head coach Nick Kay also goes into the Olympics full of ambition.

He said: "We're here to win. We want to win a gold. It's something that's been eluding us for a long time now and we want to do it, not just for our group but all the Boomers and Australian players that have been there before.

"We have got to stick together, that's our big thing right now. We have got to play hard each possession and do all those little things that make our Boomer culture special."

Nigeria, who also beat USA in a warm-up game, are Australia's first opponents on Sunday.

"I think they've shown a lot," Dellavedova said about Nigeria.

"They've got a lot of great players. Obviously they beat USA earlier in the week. Athletic, aggressive on defence, I think they made 20 or more threes against the US.

"They were really shooting the ball and moving it. It’s going to be tough, and we're going to have to be ready right from the start of the game."

There were raucous celebrations in Milwaukee on Wednesday as the Bucks ended a 50-year NBA title drought.

The Bucks clinched their first championship since 1971 with a 105-98 Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

While there was ecstasy for the Bucks, it was agony for the Suns, who let a 2-0 Finals lead and the chance to win the title for the first time slip through their fingers.

They were undone by arguably the premier player in the NBA, with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo reaching what now stands as the zenith of his career to date with a Finals performance that ranks among the best of all time.

Antetokounmpo rose to the occasion in the most emphatic fashion and a closer examination of his dominance in the Finals is the only place to start in Stats Perform's look at who thrived on the grandest stage and who shrunk under the spotlight in the final edition of Heat Check for the 2020-21 season.

WHO GOT HOT

Giannis Antetokounmpo -  Bucks

Though the depth the Bucks have assembled helped them survive Antetokounmpo's knee injury and get past the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the performance of the Greek Freak that was always going to determine the destination of the title.

And when it mattered most, Antetokounmpo - fittingly for a man of his tremendous stature - reached heights few can match in putting together a Finals display for the ages.

In the first three rounds of the postseason, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.2 points per game, a slight improvement on his 28.1 ppg in the regular season despite the injury that forced him to miss the final two games of the Hawks series.

He upped the ante substantially in the Finals, though, racking up 35.17 points per game in a series he capped with a stunning 50-point effort to seal a historic crown for Milwaukee.

In ending Milwaukee's half-century wait, Antetokounmpo wrote his name into several pages of the record books.

Registering 14 rebounds and five blocks in Game 6, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Finals game.

He joined LeBron James (2015) as the second player to average at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a Finals series and followed in the footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal (2000) by recording three games with 40 plus points and 10 plus rebounds in a Finals series.

Antetokounmpo finished the Finals with a field goal percentage (61.8), surpassing O'Neal for the best shooting performance ever from the field in a Finals series.

When the pressure was at its highest, no player was hotter than Antetokounmpo.

 

Pat Connaughton - Bucks

For all the heroics of Antetokounmpo, the Finals was not a one-man show.

Indeed, Antetokounmpo received his fair share of help. The Bucks scored 528 points with his key supporting actors, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, on the court together.

But beyond that pair there were a number of lesser heralded performances, not least from shooting guard Connaughton.

He upped his points per game average from 6.06 in the first three rounds to 9.17 in the Finals. Connaughton also improved in rebounds per game (5.83) having posted 3.88 in the opening three series and made a significant impact from beyond the arc.

Connaughton averaged 2.5 made threes per game in the Finals and trailed only Jae Crowder and Middleton (both 2.67) in that regard.

If he can maintain that level of performance next season, Connaughton will again be a key role player as the Bucks try to defend their crown.

Chris Paul - Suns

Though he was heartbreakingly denied the first NBA title of a Hall of Fame career, Paul can look back on his performance in the postseason and in the Finals with pride.

Only Antetokounmpo improved his points per game average from the opening three rounds of the postseason by a greater margin in the Finals.

Paul put up 18.07 per game as the Suns saw off the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers.

That average leaped to 21.83 in the Finals, while he also made strides as a deep shooter by converting two threes per game, up from 1.21 in the first three rounds.

Paul may look to the fact he had a negative plus-minus in each of the Suns' four losses as evidence of him not performing to a high enough standard.

Yet the reality is nobody did more to help the Suns' cause, but Antetokounmpo ensured his efforts were in vain.

WHO WENT COLD...

Cameron Payne - Suns

One of the stars of the Suns' surge in the NBA bubble last season, Payne has proven an astute acquisition by Phoenix.

He had a significant impact on their success in the playoffs this term, averaging 10.06 points per game across the first three rounds and putting up 29 and nine assists in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers.

But his influence waned in the Finals, which saw him average 7.33 points per game.

Only twice did Payne register double figures in the Finals, in which he scored 44 points in over 93 minutes on the court, finishing with a plus-minus of -21.

Having played a sizeable role off the bench in the Suns getting to the Finals, Payne was arguably more of a hindrance when it came to the season-ending showpiece.

Devin Booker - Suns

Booker was outstanding throughout the postseason for the Suns but he dropped off in two aspects of his game in the Finals.

The Suns were beaten consistently on the boards by the Bucks, who averaged 46.3 rebounds per game to Phoenix's 39.

And part of that disparity was Booker's decline on the glass.

He had put up 6.44 rebounds per game in the first three rounds but saw that tally dip to 3.5 in the Finals.

Additionally, Booker faded as a force beyond the arc, making 1.83 threes per game in the Finals, down from 2.06 in the rest of the playoffs.

Booker has established himself as a bonafide star, but he may spend the offseason examining how he can avoid that kind of decline should he get another shot in the Finals.

 

P.J. Tucker - Bucks

He is unlikely to care given the Bucks emerged victorious, but Tucker's numbers from the Finals do not make for pretty reading.

His rebounds per game average tailed off from 5.18 in the rest of the playoffs to 3.83 in the Finals, while he scored only 24 points in nearly 188 minutes of play.

Tucker had two games where he did not score a point, the second of those coming in Game 6.

However, his plus-minus in the decisive encounter was +13, with Tucker serving as proof that raw numbers are not always the best measure of a player's performance.

Kevin Durant believes rivals of the United States will go into the Tokyo Olympics confident of producing an upset.

Winners of the last three Olympic gold medals, the USA are strong favourites to make it four in a row, with Australia and Spain seen as their closest challengers.

But Team USA have had a far-from-ideal Olympics preparation, defeated by Nigeria and Australia in exhibition games, though they did beat Spain in their final warm-up contest in Las Vegas.

They have lost significant players including having to make two late roster changes, adding JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson to replace Kevin Love and Bradley Beal. 

Love withdrew with a calf injury, while Beal had to drop out due to health and safety protocols. 

USA face France in Saitama for their Group A opener on July 25 and Durant feels the favourites must be on guard.

"All of them [Olympic tournaments] are difficult," he said. "Every team wants to beat us, everybody wants to see us lose, so every game has a little bit more pressure to it. 

"A lot of guys dropped out, a lot of circumstances, and I'm sure other teams are seeing us lose and feel confident coming into the tournament.

"But we understand what we're getting ourselves into and we're looking forward to the challenge."

Durant feels like the team is starting to come together after those exhibition defeats.

The Brooklyn Nets forward added: "I feel like we're understanding what coach wants from us on both ends of the floor.

"Guys are getting more comfortable with each other and their roles on the team, and that's only going to bode well for us as we start to play real games. 

"So it was good to kind of get a punch in the mouth early on to remind us that it's not gonna be a cakewalk. 

"And so many people are used to Team USA coming in and blowing everybody out, so it was good for us to see that. Now, hopefully, those are the last losses."

After the conclusion of the NBA Finals, head coach Gregg Popovich is poised to welcome Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to the set-up.

He is not sure how quickly the trio will adapt to new surroundings but is glad to have them en route.

"Well, there's not a whole lot you can do when they get here the day before," said Popovich.

"It's pretty obvious that they won't know everything that’s been going on, but luckily it's basketball. We'll try to keep it simple and just take care of what we think we can take care of.

"The good thing is they'll be in shape. I don't know how the plane's gonna affect them, that's not an easy flight. 

"It is true that they won't be as ready to play in the sense of execution that we might want, but that's understandable

"We are not sure [how we will incorporate them]. Something like that is pretty unique, there's no paradigm or game plan or rulebook.

"So it's something we'll discuss the rest of the week and just do what we think is best - it'll be an interesting situation for sure."

Popovich was asked if the players will have any film or play packages to review on the flight to Tokyo.

"They're gonna sleep," he replied.

In a further boost to the roster, USA guard Zach LaVine has cleared health and safety protocols so he will also travel to Tokyo and join up with the team.

An emotional Mike Budenholzer struggled to sum up Giannis Antetokounmpo's incredible impact for the Milwaukee Bucks as the NBA Finals MVP looked on.

Antetokounmpo scored 50 points for the Bucks in Game 6 on Tuesday, inspiring a 105-98 win against the Phoenix Suns that clinched the team's first title in 50 years.

Coach Budenholzer was close to tears as he described his post-game celebrations with the team and was not entirely comfortable discussing Antetokounmpo's performance as the 'Greek Freak' himself waited for his own media duties.

But Budeholzer was keen to highlight the two-time MVP's display from the foul line, so often criticised in recent seasons.

A 50-point showing was the best of Antetokounmpo's playoff career – and the joint-best in the clinching game of a Finals series – and was boosted by a remarkable 17 made free throws from just 19 attempts.

Only three times in Antetokounmpo's career – regular season or playoffs – has he previously made more shots from the foul line.

This was his best return in a playoff game, ahead of the 16 made from 22 attempts against the Boston Celtics in 2019.

Antetokounmpo's 89.5 per cent free-throw shooting in Game 6 was way up on his playoff career average of 61.3, but Budenholzer insisted he had no doubts the 26-year-old would deliver.

"It's hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does," the coach said as Antetokounmpo waited in the room.

"But the way he made his free throws, the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership... he has been working on it.

"We say we want Giannis to get to the free throw line. We believe. We talked about it this past summer.

"To win a championship, you've got to make free throws and you've got to make shots. He's made shots throughout the playoffs. He's made free throws throughout the playoffs.

"[Five] blocked shots, however many points. He's off the charts. He's the MVP of the NBA Finals."

Antetokounmpo made seven of seven from the line and six of 10 from the field in the third quarter as he put up 20 points.

Having also scored 20 in the third quarter of Game 2, Antetokounmpo became the first player in the past 50 seasons to have multiple 20-point quarters in a Finals series.

"Mostly in halftime, we were talking about defense. We had 47 points against us and we think we can be better," Budenholzer said.

"But I think he embraces us being great defensively – Giannis does, the whole team [does].

"When we get stops and get out and run and get Giannis in space, get our team in space, I think he's special.

"He was able to put his stamp on the game in the third quarter and flip the score. And then some big plays in the fourth quarter – big plays, big blocks. It's hard to keep finding words for Giannis."

Giannis Antetokounmpo has explained how the late, great Kobe Bryant made him believe he could become a superstar in the NBA.

Milwaukee Bucks talisman Antetokounmpo led his team to their first NBA title in 50 years on Tuesday, scoring 50 points – the joint-most in the clinching game of a Finals series – in a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns.

Antetokounmpo's efforts were recognised with the NBA Finals MVP award, adding to his 2020 double of the regular season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have also taken all three individual honours across their careers.

But Antetokounmpo's first MVP recognition in 2019 represented a breakthrough, rising to a challenge set by Bryant.

Replying to an Antetokounmpo message that said he was "still waiting for my challenge" in 2017, Bryant replied on Twitter: "MVP".

The Los Angeles Lakers great – a five-time champion and two-time Finals MVP – then raised the bar further once Antetokounmpo established himself as the regular season's best.

In a Twitter post that was shared by the NBA again on Tuesday, Bryant wrote: "My man....M.V.P. Greatness. Next up: Championship. #MambaMentality"

The league posted at the end of Game 6: "Challenge complete."

Pau Gasol, Bryant's team-mate on the 2009 and 2010 title-winning Lakers teams, added: "He did it, brother #MambaMentality #KobesLegacy"

Antetokounmpo was asked about his 2017 exchange with Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, in his post-game media duties and explained: "It means a lot. This started almost like a joke at first.

"It was a Nike ad and he was sending challenges to players, to Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, all of that. And I was like, 'Let me just shoot my shot... what's my challenge?'

"He said MVP, and at first I was joking, I didn't think he was going to respond to me.

"But when he did, he made me believe. Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this? I can play at a higher level, lift my team and win MVP?

"I had to do it. I had to work hard. It's not necessarily that I didn't want to let him down, I had to work because people believed that I could do it.

"That's the thing, I'm a people pleaser. I don't like letting people down.

"When I re-signed with the city of Milwaukee, that's the main reason I re-signed: because I didn't want to let the people down and [have them] think I don't work extremely hard for them, which I do.

"Being able to accomplish those things in this period of time is crazy. It's unreal, freakin' unreal. I can't believe it."

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul insists he is not retiring and is determined to go one better after losing the NBA Finals with a 105-98 Game 6 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.

Paul, 36, made his maiden NBA Finals appearance in his 16th season in the competition but missed out on the ultimate glory, as the Suns let slip a 2-0 series lead.

The veteran was visibly devastated at the defeat but vowed to return to the NBA Finals having waited so long for his shot at the title.

"It'll take a while to process this," Paul said at the post-game news conference. "Same mentality, get back to work. I ain't retiring. Back to work."

The Bucks became only the fifth side in NBA Finals history to come back from 2-0 down to take the title.

Scores had been level through three quarters in Game 6, but Paul acknowledged the Bucks were better down the stretch, offering lessons for his side.

"Right now, you've just got to try to figure out what you could've done more," he said.

"It's tough. Great group of guys, hell of a season but this one is going to hurt for a while."

Phoenix's run to the postseason snapped an 11-year playoff wait, while they had not made the NBA Finals since 1993, but Paul took little comfort in that.

"For me, it means back to work. Nothing more, nothing less," he said. "There ain't no moral victories.

"We saw what it takes to get there. Hopefully we saw what it takes to get past that."

Suns team-mate Devin Booker scored 19 points on eight-for-22 shooting in Game 6.

The 24-year-old had an outstanding season but was not able to perform at his best consistently throughout the Finals.

"This isn't something you want to feel," Booker said. "I haven't felt hurt like this in my life.

"That's what I say, we have a base and a foundation. Championship basketball at all times."

Suns head coach Monty Williams, who entered the Bucks locker room to congratulate them on their victory, fought back tears at his news conference.

"I think it's going to take me a minute. I just don’t take it for granted," he said. "It's hard to get here. I wanted it so bad. It's hard to process right now. it's hard."

The Suns, who were founded in 1968, are still chasing their first NBA title in franchise history.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says it means everything to him to win the NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks who drafted him in 2013.

Antetokounmpo starred with 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as the Bucks won the NBA Finals in six with a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

The Bucks' triumph ends their half-century wait for an NBA title and comes after losing in the Conference semi-finals in 2020 and the Conference finals in 2019 when Antetokounmpo was MVP on both occasions.

"It means a lot," Antetokounmpo, who was pick 15 in the 2013 NBA Draft, said post-game about winning the title with the Bucks.

"I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me. I want to thank my team-mates, they played hard every single game.

"I wanted to do it in this city, I wanted to do it with these guys. I'm so happy we were able to get it done."

Antetokounmpo was full of praise for team-mate Khris Middleton who came up with some key late shots to finish with 17 points and get the Bucks home.

The pair have been team-mates at Milwaukee since Antetokounmpo was drafted by the Bucks and Middleton was traded from the Detroit Pistons in 2013.

"This guy doesn’t really know how much he pushes me," 26-year-old Antetokounmpo said about Middleton. "He pushes me every day to be great.

"I'm happy that I can step on the floor with this guy. We've been together for eight years.

"I'm happy I was able to do it with him, with these guys and as coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] says, we've got to do it again."

Veteran guard Jrue Holiday arrived from the New Orleans Pelicans ahead of this season, seen as one of the missing pieces in the Bucks' jigsaw.

Holiday only contributed 12 points and 11 assists offensively, but he played a key role defensively, blanketed Devin Booker, who finished with 19 points.

"They embraced me," Holiday said post-game about the Bucks after being traded from the Pelicans.

"They told me what to do from the beginning. I've seen all the work they've been doing and how close they've gotten. They believed in me.

"Coming here was obviously the greatest thing in my career."

Giannis Antetokounmpo has produced a performance for the ages to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title since 1971 after a 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

The Greek forward scored 50 points with 14 rebounds and five blocks in a monster Game 6 performance, including a 20-point third quarter after the Suns charged back in the second.

Antetokounmpo's haul was his third 40-plus-point display in the NBA Finals, while he reached 20 points in a quarter for the second time in the series, which is a feat which had not been achieved since Michael Jordan in 1993.

The 26-year-old, who shook off his demons to be exceptional from the free-throw line with 17-from-19, also becomes only the seventh player in the history of NBA Finals to have a 50-point game.

It came as no surprise as Antetokounmpo was named MVP of the NBA Finals after a heroic series. His achievement is more remarkable given he overcame injury after he hyperextended his knee in the Conference Finals.

Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday were subdued early in Game 6, with Antetokounmpo ably taking the lead role. Middleton came through with some key late buckets, finishing with 17 points, while Holiday had 12 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists.

Veteran Suns guard Chris Paul scored 26 points with five assists, while Devin Booker's shooting radar was off, with 19 points at 36.4 per cent from the field.

Antetokounmpo was the lead act as the Bucks ended their half-century wait for an NBA title, helping Milwaukee get off to a flying start with a 29-16 opening quarter at the Fiserv Forum.

Bobby Portis provided early support with 10 points as Holiday struggled for offensive impact, before the Suns responded with an 8-0 second-quarter run to lead 47-42 at half-time.

Phoenix led by as much as seven points early in the third quarter but Antetokounmpo was at the forefront of the Bucks' response, with a memorable 20-point period.

The Suns got as close as four points with less than 90 seconds remaining after Jae Crowder's pair of free-throws, but Middleton's jumper followed by a duo from the stripe sealed victory for the Bucks.

The Milwaukee Bucks can clinch a first NBA title since 1971 with victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the Finals on Tuesday, with Giannis Antetokounmpo preaching the importance of a team-first approach and staying in the moment.

Having fallen 2-0 behind in the series with back-to-back defeats in Phoenix, the Bucks are on the cusp of glory having reeled off three successive wins.

Milwaukee clinched a dramatic Game 5 triumph in Phoenix on Saturday, Jrue Holiday combining with Antetokounmpo for the defining play late in the fourth quarter as he stole the ball from Devin Booker and then lofted a pass for the two-time MVP to send down a thunderous dunk.

That has set the stage for the Bucks to end their 50-year wait in front of their home fans, but Antetokounmpo is not focusing on the potential celebrations should the Bucks close out the series.

"It's going to be amazing. Hopefully we can focus what we got to do and be in the present, compete as much as possible, play good basketball and be the team that wins at the end," said Antetokounmpo 

"Hopefully we can enjoy it with our family and with the fans and they can enjoy it also. I feel like it's something that you can feel the excitement in the city. The last time we were in the NBA Finals was 1974.

"It's been a while. I'm happy that the fans are enjoying it. There's 20,000 people in the arena, 25,000 people outside the arena. But we got to focus. We got to do our job. Then they can do their job celebrating at the end. But we got to do our job first.

"So we got to be in the present as much as possible. I can't focus on celebrating. I can't focus on that right now because I feel like you get too ahead of yourself. We got to focus. I got to focus right now, and then when the game comes tomorrow, focus on each possession at a time, a possession at a time.

"As I said, play good basketball, compete as hard as possible and put ourselves in a position to be able to win that game. That's all can you ask for. Hopefully we win.

"If we win, great. If we don't, we have one more chance. But if we win, it would be nice to celebrate with the fans inside and outside and with our families, because this is something historical that is happening in the city right now."

While Antetokounmpo is averaging a double-double in the series with 32.2 points and 13 rebounds, Holiday and Khris Middleton have each played a pivotal role for the Bucks.

The Bucks have scored 344 points in the Finals when that trio have been on the court, with images of Antetokounmpo leaning on Holiday or Middleton a frequent feature of this series.

 

Asked if he has improved at making it a "we not me" journey, Antetokounmpo replied: "Have to. Everybody is a part of this process. I don't think there's been anybody that has gone through this process by himself and go all the way and win the NBA championship.

"We have to do it together. I need Khris to be great, I need Jrue to be great, I need Bobby [Portis], all of those guys to be great.

"I'm tired. I look next to me, Khris is tired and Jrue is tired or whatever the case might be. It's like they're my brothers. That's when you want to hug them, put your arm around them and, like, we got this, we got this together, we got to keep doing this together until the end."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday 

All the focus will be on Antetokounmpo but, as he proved in Game 5, Holiday is just as key to the Bucks' hopes.

He is averaging a series-high nine assists per game in the Finals, and his influence on Antetokounmpo is clear.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 41.1 points per 100 possessions with Holiday on the court in the Finals, compared to 38.2 when he is off the floor.

The Finals' top facilitator and top scorer must each be at their best to ensure the Bucks are celebrating come the final buzzer.

Phoenix Suns - Chris Paul

Paul had a double-double in Game 5 with 21 points and 11 assists, but there is evidence to suggest his influence has waned over the course of the series.

He had a plus/minus of -6 on Saturday, the third consecutive game he has finished in the negative column in that regard.

If the Suns are to keep their hopes of a first title alive, they may need a repeat of his 32-point showing from Game 1. 

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