PHOENIX — The worst thoughts crossed Giannis Antetokounmpo’s mind.
He not only believed he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, he wondered if next season might be wiped out, too.
“When the play happened,” he said, “I thought I’m going to be out for a year, you know.
“I couldn’t walk probably, and my knee was like double the size. Usually I never swell up. But you know, I woke up the next day, did whatever it’s called, MRI or X-ray, I don’t know what it’s called, and they said I’m good. And I was like, ‘Thank God.’ “
The imaging revealed a hyperextended left knee, but the Milwaukee Bucks remained quiet about the extent of the injury until they elevated his status for Tuesday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns from doubtful to questionable.
A week after the injury, the Bucks medical staff cleared him to play in the Bucks’ 118-105 series-opening loss.
In between the injury and Game 1, Antetokounmpo worked around the clock to reduce swelling, strengthen the knee and put himself in position to play.
“From my treatment to lifting and getting on the court, pool sessions, keeping my foot elevated, like 24 hours a day,” Antetokounmpo said. “And obviously it wasn’t easy, but I was willing to do it, and the medical staff had a great program for me that I was able to do what I had to do to stay in shape and at the same time recover and not have a lot of swelling in my knee.”
He had 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block, and displayed some of his pre-injury abilities against the Suns.
But it’s clear he’s not yet 100%. He grabbed his knee at one point during the game and walked gingerly off the postgame press conference dais.
He won’t admit any discomfort.
“I’m trying my best to not make it about my knee, but I’m going to say one more time that my knee felt good,” said Antetokounmpo. “Obviously when you go and play a game, you never know what’s going to happen. … At the end of the day, I’m out there. I felt good. I don’t feel pain. I can run. I can jump. I can set screens. I can rebound the ball. I can do stuff.”
He did do stuff. A 20-17 double-double in a Finals game in 35 minutes is impressive no matter the circumstance. Three of Antetokounmpo’s six made baskets were dunks, and he had a chase-down block on Mikal Bridges that was impressive. It’s significant what he accomplished.
“There were a lot of good things, considering five days and what he’s been through these last five, six, seven days,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s a rhythm guy. So, I’m excited about how he’ll improve from Game 1 to Game 2. We’ll see how he feels. But I think play-wise, he always gets better when he plays.”
If he’s going to improve between the games, that’s great for the Bucks, who cut a 20-point third-quarter deficit to 101-94 in the fourth. The Bucks need an even better Antetokounmpo if they’re going to win a road game or even make this a long series.
Antetokounmpo said he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I might wake up tomorrow and my knee might be swelled up,” he said. “Hopefully I wake up tomorrow 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.”
The Bucks’ medical staff would not have cleared him to play in Game 1 if they were concerned about his availability for Game 2. That’s a great sign for the Bucks.
Antetokounmpo gave an open and refreshing press conference, the first time he has met with the media since the injury.
“Just wearing the jacket and seeing the Finals logo on the jacket and the jersey, obviously, we didn’t get the win, but it’s good to be here,” he said. “It’s good to enjoy the moment, enjoy the games. You can never take things like this for granted and just try to make the best out of it. But I’m happy that we’re able to be here. We worked hard all year to have an opportunity to win a championship, and we’re going to keep working hard day-by-day and put ourselves in a position to win.”
Those dark thoughts disappeared, and the outlook is a little brighter.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.