But if one judged the state of the Bucks solely from how superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has approached his media obligations, it would be easy to assume Milwaukee was the team leading two games to none, rather than facing a dire situation heading into Sunday night’s Game 3 here at Fiserv Forum.
Take Saturday afternoon, for example. Antetokounmpo, wearing heavy bags of ice on both knees and without any shoes on, strode to the podium, looked out at the assembled media and said with a smile, “This is going to be fun.” Then, when he was asked the first question of his session, he initially stared ahead and only offered up, “I’m just here not to get fined,” parroting the famous utterance from former NFL star Marshawn Lynch, before flashing a huge grin and telling everyone – twice – that he was only joking.
And later, when Antetokounmpo was asked about his jovial mood amid the position Milwaukee finds itself in, he said that it’s simply his way of processing what is happening, as opposed to letting the gravity of the situation – playing in the NBA Finals for the first time, and trailing 2-0 in the series – weigh on him.
“You know, I personally think, obviously, I know it’s the Finals. Like, tomorrow, we all understand what kind of game we are getting ourselves into tomorrow,” Antetokounmpo said, referring to the Bucks deficit in the series. “So we know what we got to do. But at the end of the day, you got to keep it light. You cannot tell yourself, ‘Oh, it’s the Finals. You got to do this. There’s so much pressure, man.’ No, like, it’s still basketball. It’s easy to say, hard to do, but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way. Just got to keep it light. Got to keep the ball light. You got to keep the atmosphere light.
“Once we go out there and you see the fans, you know that you understand what kind of game you’re into. But me personally, one thing that helps me that I do is keep it light and enjoy that. Knowing I enjoy things, I really like put my heart into it. If I don’t enjoy it, I’m just going through the motions. So I just try to enjoy it, enjoy this, try to enjoy that I’m here. We have come a long way to be in this position and we got to try to make the best out of it. That’s what we did I guess in the first round, in the second round, in the third round. That’s what we’ll do now and hopefully it works out in our favor.”
One thing that remained consistent for Antetokounmpo Saturday with virtually every other time he’s sat down in front of the media in recent memory was his stressing the two things he focuses on every time he goes out on the court: enjoying himself, and competing. And, despite being down in the series, he felt like he was able to achieve both of those things in Milwaukee’s two losses in Phoenix.
For the Bucks, simply having Antetokounmpo on the court at all after his ugly fall in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in Atlanta – a play that Antetokounmpo has previously said he initially believed would keep him out for a year, but instead only cost him a week – is a reason for optimism.
But, beyond that, so is the fact Milwaukee has been in this situation before. It was only a month ago that the Bucks came home after losing the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Brooklyn Nets, only to win four of the remaining five games to advance.
And while that situation isn’t perfectly analogous to this one, it does give the Bucks the muscle memory and confidence to know they are capable of coming back and winning the title.
“A lot of people thought our season was done,” Bucks guard Khris Middleton said of where the Bucks stood in that Nets series. “We still believed in ourselves. We came back and had an ugly grind-it-out game that we found a way to win.
“Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty. Sometimes it’s going to be ugly. We just got to find a way to win one game at a time from here on out.”
While part of the Bucks turning this series around will begin with both Middleton and Jrue Holiday getting going in a way they were unable to overall in both games in Phoenix, but particularly Game 2, in which they shot a combined 12-for-37 from the field, having Antetokounmpo play the way he did in Game 2 again will go a long way toward getting Milwaukee back into this series.
His stat line from Game 1 was impressive – 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in 35 minutes – but he only took 11 shots and wasn’t his usual aggressive self in transition. In Game 2, however, Antetokounmpo was transcendent, finishing with 42 points on 15-for-22 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds, four assists, a steal and three blocks in 40 minutes, and simply got whatever he wanted throughout.
And while Antetokounmpo was unwilling to say anything noticeable changed about his game from Game 1 to Game 2, he did admit he is growing more comfortable with the mid-range game that he’s ben attempting to develop, and was a part of his success in Game 2.
“I’m more comfortable,” he said. “I’m not trying to think about it. Now that you said it, I might go and miss them tomorrow because of you. But, no, I’m feeling more comfortable. I’m just trying to be aggressive, trying to go downhill. Sometimes guys stay in front of me or they create a wall that doesn’t allow me to get in the paint. So you got to try to figure out other ways to be effective, whether it’s pass the ball or pull up for the mid-range jump shot or get to a spot and then shoot over them.
“But you just got to feel out ways to be effective. Sometimes you’re going to make them. Sometimes you’re going to miss them. But you got to keep being aggressive. My mindset is always try to get downhill, try to make the right play, the right decision, either is that a pass, either is that scoring. But, as I said, sometimes you have to take those shots. You got to keeping the defense guessing. But I feel comfortable, and hopefully moving forward, I can feel more comfortable in those shots and be even more effective.”