It’s tempting to call Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 block on Deandre Ayton the play of the 2021 NBA Finals. With 1:16 left in the fourth quarter and the Milwaukee Bucks clinging to a 2-point lead, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker received the ball at the top of the key and dribbled toward the lane. Bucks defensive Swiss Army knife P.J. Tucker chased him through a crowd; Antetokounmpo stuck with Ayton as he ran to the hoop. Well, kind of. As Booker released the ball with a flick of the wrist, Giannis left his assignment to try and disrupt the pass. The brief gamble gave Ayton a clean look at the rim for an alley-oop dunk. And it really was a clean look but for a moment of Giannis magic. Inspector Gadget was a documentary.
Giannis managed to corrupt a few basketball truisms in that split-second of action. When a player is double teamed, a teammate will be open. Nope. The ball is faster than the man. Apparently not.
The moment turned the game, and perhaps the series, on its head. Phoenix had a 9-point lead to start the fourth quarter but fell apart as soon as Giannis got his fingertips between Ayton and the rim. Milwaukee took control in that final minute and ran out as 109–103 winners, tying the series at two games apiece. I only say it’s tempting to call it the play of the Finals because the block ensures there will be ample opportunities for Giannis to top it. A total debasement of Newtonian physics probably won’t be an isolated incident.
You really need to watch the play in slow motion to fully appreciate what Giannis did. Unfortunately for viewers at home, ESPN’s production crew held off on broadcasting any replays for a bafflingly long time. Did we all imagine it? Was it a collective hallucination? (No. It actually happened.)
What the slowed-down footage reveals is that Giannas leapt off his left leg, the same leg he injured just two weeks prior against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. That injury—a hyperextended knee—was the kind of viscerally brutal event that demanded an audience warning before being replayed. Him even being able to suit up in the Finals is an achievement, but for that same leg to have a starring role in this moment of brazen athletic absurdity? Jeepers.
Whether or not it becomes the lasting image of this series, Giannis’ recovery and denial of Ayton is already one of the best blocks in NBA Finals history. His Bucks teammate Pat Connaughton went further with his praise.
The most obvious competition is LeBron James’ chasedown block on Andre Iguodala during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
When it comes to stakes, it’s difficult to surpass LeBron’s swat. Game 7, all tied up, two minutes left to play—that’s the stuff of career crescendos. But the block itself? Giannis’ might actually take the cake. Whereas LeBron had time to chart his angle of attack—you can see him stalking Iguodala the moment he got the ball—Giannis had to go on pure instinct. LeBron also had some help, as J.R. Smith. (J.R. Smith!) sprinted back on defense and forced Iguodala to double-clutch his layup which left the ball on a platter. Giannis was all alone. Granted, that was largely his fault, but his initial lurch toward the passer only worked to make for a more impressive highlight.
Speaking of recoveries, let’s go back to address the stakes for a moment. LeBron was defending a layup. The Bucks star, meanwhile, put himself in a position to be embarrassed. Ayton already has one legendary playoff alley-oop to his name. Giannis himself thought it was curtains.
How the Finals ends will help put Giannis’ incredible block in context. A Milwaukee championship makes it a historic turning point; lose the series, and it’s a thrilling footnote.
And then there’s the possibility that Giannis will somehow top that Game 4 block. Who knows where he’ll pop up? The Suns players will surely be looking over their shoulders.