MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo acknowledges there is pressure in the NBA playoffs and after the winning the first title, “your mind wants to win a second time or a third time.”
A leading MVP candidate again this season, Antetokounmpo likes to compare playing basketball to creating a work of art and he'll try to produce another postseason masterpiece this weekend.
His last time on the playoff stage, Antetokounmpo scored 50 points in a Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns that gave the Bucks their first championship in a half-century.
Antetokounmpo and the third-seeded Bucks face the sixth-seeded Chicago Bulls in an Eastern Conference first-round series starting Sunday in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, the mindset doesn’t change,” Antetokounmpo said this week. “Enjoy the game as much as possible because we worked hard for this moment. We can’t take this moment for granted.”
On the surface, it appears that winning a title last year took a weight off the 27-year-old's shoulders.
Having been there, done that, Antetokounmpo appears more relaxed.
The father of two has begun several postgame news conferences by making “dad jokes,” a practice he continued this week while getting ready for the playoffs.
“What do you call a cow on a rollercoaster?” Antetokounmpo asked reporters who gathered around him. “A milkshake.”
But the postseason is no laughing matter for Antetokounmpo. The Bucks leader insists he feels just as much pressure now as he did before he’d won a title.
“Obviously a lot of people think once you win a championship and you succeed in life, there’s no pressure,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t really agree. Obviously I do not try to focus on the pressure as much. I try to focus and enjoy the game. But at the end of the day, your mind always is going to find something to replace that.
“Almost like, ‘OK, you won one time.’ Now your mind wants to win a second time or a third time.”
That attitude reflects Antetokounmpo’s artistic approach to the game
He believes a player enters each contest with a new opportunity to create, as if he’s an artist staring at a blank canvas.
“If you play well and you hold on to the past, it prevents you from playing well again,” Antetokounmpo said. “If you had 40 the previous game, you’re like, ‘OK, I had 40 the previous game. Today I can just be sloppy with the ball.’ That was that art that was created.
“Today I reset. I get a new canvas and try to create new art.”
The approach helped Antetokounmpo follow up the Bucks’ championship with one of his finest NBA seasons.
He enters the playoffs as the Eastern Conference player of the month for March and April. Antetokounmpo averaged a career-high 29.9 points – behind only Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid – along with 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
He became the first player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in four separate seasons. Oscar Robertson did it three times.
“He doesn’t settle,” Bucks guard George Hill said. “One thing I do know about him: Him winning a championship doesn’t define who he is. He’s still in there every day, every morning, every night working his butt off to get better. He still feels like he has a lot to prove.”
Teammate Jrue Holiday argued late in the season that Antetokounmpo merits consideration for the NBA’s most improved player award because of the way the 6-foot-11 forward diversified his game.
Antetokounmpo said he liked the idea of “changing the narrative” about his game by showing he could shoot effectively and wasn’t merely a guy who capitalized on his size and athleticism by scoring on dunks and drives to the basket.
Although he made fewer than 30% of his 3-point attempts this season, Antetokounmpo passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the Bucks’ scoring record by sinking a game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation in an overtime victory at Brooklyn. He made 72.2% of his free-throw attempts, his highest percentage since the 2019-20 season.
“He’s dominated and perfected one part of his game, and now he’s going to grow and extend that range to the 3-point line,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who coached Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee from 2014-18. “That’s what he says he’s going to do, and that means he’s going to do it.”
And that means realizing what he accomplished last year won’t necessarily play any part in whether the Bucks are able to repeat.
“Last year’s last year,” Antetokounmpo said. “Last year we were able to go through ups and downs in the playoffs and end up with the championship. But that doesn’t mean nothing.”
For now, it's just another blank canvas.
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