There it was, mixed in with the coal that filled the Knicks’ stocking in a Christmas afternoon mismatch against the Bucks: a genuine highlight. A defensive highlight, at that.
With 36 seconds remaining in the first half, Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo go-go’d his Inspector Gadget arms on a layup attempt, and Noah Vonleh met him at the side of the rim. And blocked the shot clean. Antetokounmpo tumbled to the baseline as the Knicks raced the other way.
“It felt good,” Vonleh said. “It’s part of the game, guys are going to get blocked, get dunked on. It’s just another play for me.”
That yeoman’s response matched the yeoman’s work the 6-foot-9 Vonleh did in the 109-95 defeat as the primary defender on the 6-11 Antetokounmpo, whom Vonleh called “probably a top-five player in the league” and “a matchup nightmare.” On the other hand: The Greek Freak scored 30 points on 21 shots, and there might not be a human on Earth (not named Kawhi Leonard anyway) who can bottle him up.
“He battled, he really battled,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said of Vonleh. “I was extremely happy with his effort. He’s going up against an MVP candidate for sure, one of the toughest covers in the league. Giannis plays like a guard, and Noah his whole life has been a power forward/center, so for him to be able to just compete that way against Giannis, I was very happy with his effort.”
Vonleh said he focused on not letting Antetokounmpo get position too deep in the post and making him catch farther from the rim.
“That’s the mindset I try to come in with no matter who I’m guarding: Just try to make it tough. I felt like I made it pretty tough,” Vonleh said. “I felt like whenever I was on him, just try to deny him and make him get out of position and try to make him finish through contact.”
Vonleh finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds for his 10th double-double of what has been a renaissance season. The 23-year-old former No. 9-overall pick has made an impression as a two-way talent with the rebuilding Knicks, his fourth pro team, in a way he never has before.
“I wish we got the win, but it just felt great playing out there, playing MSG, playing in front of the great fans, family and friends,” Vonleh said. “It was a great opportunity to play Christmas Day.”
Now, his reward for 33 minutes of giving Antetokounmpo fits: an instant rematch Thursday in Milwaukee in the return leg of the Knicks-Bucks home-and-home.
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