MILWAUKEE — Two giants converged in midair, arms outstretched, one ball between them, one game on the line, and quite possibly a championship hanging in the balance as they hung in space for one split second that seemed like an eternity.
Deandre Ayton soared skyward to grab the pass that would become the dunk that would tie Game 4 of the NBA Finals with just over a minute to play … until Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered the swat that denied the dunk—and propelled the Bucks to a thrilling 109–103 victory Wednesday night, tying this series with the Suns at two games apiece.
It was perhaps the greatest play of Antetokounmpo’s young career. It was surely among the greatest blocks in Finals history, drawing instant comparisons to LeBron James’s historic swat in 2016. It was emblematic of a series that has been wild and confounding, oddly compelling and sometimes ghastly.
And it was a reminder that even now, in the peak of the NBA’s three-point era, nothing matches the impact of a bouncy 7-footer in the vicinity of the basket. With the Suns trailing 101–99, Devin Booker lobbed the ball where only Ayton could grab it for a certain score. Except Antetokounmpo, the former Defensive Player of the Year, read it perfectly and rejected Ayton at the rim.
“Shock and awe,” said the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton, describing his own reaction as the play unfolded.
“One of those ‘oh s---’ moments,” said Bucks star Khris Middleton. “We gave up a layup, and next thing you know [Antetokounmpo] is blocking it.”
“Spectacular block, spectacular play,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “That’s an NBA Finals special moment right there. And we’re going to need more of them.”
They will, it seems, need more of just about everything with this series now a best-of-three, with Game 5 (and a possible Game 7) in Phoenix, where the Bucks have yet to win. And yet nothing has stayed constant from night to night in the Finals, so maybe none of the results so far mean anything for the games to come.
Middleton, who had been muted in Games 2 and 3, was spectacular in Game 4, delivering 40 points—including 10 of the Bucks’ last 12 over the final 2:07. Antetokounmpo, who had posted back-to-back 40-point games, settled for a workmanlike 26 points in Game 4, but added 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks, his versatility and physical prowess on full display. And Jrue Holiday, whose scoring was key to the Bucks’ win in Game 3, had a disastrous 4-for-20 shooting night—perhaps exhausted by his lockdown defense against Chris Paul.
There are no constants on the Suns’ side either, other than Paul’s continued downward spiral since Holiday began relentlessly hounding him. Paul had as many turnovers (five) as field goals Wednesday, finishing with 10 points and seven assists, his worst game of the series. Booker was scintillating, putting on an old-school midrange clinic to finish with 42 points (none from the arc), but he too was plagued by turnovers (four) against the Bucks’ irritating defense. Ayton was a monster on the boards (17), but quiet at the basket (five points).
And the teams combined for just 14 three-pointers—the fewest in a Finals game since June 13, 2013, when the Spurs and Heat combined for 12. No, this one was decided inside the arc, by dueling midrange artists (Booker and Middleton) and dueling titans (Ayton and Antetokounmpo), as if the series had been transported back to the 1990s.
Had the Suns pulled out the win, the game would have instantly been shrouded in controversy due to a bumpy officiating night—punctuated by a missed call so egregious that lead referee James Capers admitted the mistake to a pool reporter afterward. With under four minutes to play, Booker clearly hammered Holiday on the way to the basket, but no whistle came. It would have been Booker’s sixth and final foul. “After seeing the replay, I now realize that I missed Booker’s right arm around the waist of Holiday, and it should have been a defensive foul on the play,” Capers said.
So Booker stayed in, kept the Suns alive and threw the alley-oop that could have turned the game … if Antetokounmpo hadn’t wiped it out.
“Just a hustle play,” Antetokounmpo said with a slight grin. “I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you. But you know, going down the stretch, just do whatever it takes to win the game. Just put yourself in a position that can win the game.”
Even former Warrior Andre Iguodala—the victim of James’ legendary chase-down block down the stretch of Game 7 in 2016—was impressed by Antetokounmpo’s play, calling it “King James-esque” on Twitter.
Connaughton, though admitting he might be biased, took it a step further.
“It’s the best block of all time,” he said, specifically ranking it ahead of James’s block. While James’s was more impactful—helping the Cavaliers clinch the championship—Antetokounmpo’s wins on degree of difficulty, Connaughton said.
“As far as a block where [Antetokounmpo] was covering the pick-and-roll, he had to judge where the pass was, where Ayton was catching it and trying to dunk it, above the box, it’s about as impressive as you can get,” he said.
That debate will be left to basketball historians, who already have plenty to discuss about Antetokounmpo, who just keeps building on one of the greatest Finals debuts of all time. He has two to three games left to secure that honor—and perhaps a trophy to go with it.