4:00 p.m. ET
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Giannis Antetokounmpo has fought for eight years to get to where he and the Milwaukee Bucks are now: one victory away from an NBA title.
So it’s no surprise that Antetokounmpo admitted on Monday afternoon, just over 24 hours before playing the most important game of his NBA career, when he and the Bucks can win the title in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at home against the Phoenix Suns, that the mantra he’s repeated ad nauseam throughout these playoffs — to stay focused on the present and not think about the future — is difficult to follow.
After Monday’s practice at Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo remarked with a grin, “It’s hard, dude.” “It’s difficult. You put forth so much effort to be in that moment, which is tomorrow. It’s difficult to avoid getting ahead of yourself.
“However, this is the moment to be the most disciplined. That is exactly what I intend to accomplish. I’m going to make an effort to maintain as much discipline as possible. Don’t get too worked up. Don’t get too excited about the game. None of it is true. I can’t play the game right now… there’s nothing I can do about it at the moment. So I don’t even bother to consider it. But it’s difficult not to. When you sleep, you may have dreams about the game.
“But now is the moment for us to be disciplined as individuals… we must be disciplined and we must not be concerned. We don’t need to be concerned about making arrangements to celebrate. Nothing till it’s finished. And that’s how I’m going to be thinking till tomorrow.”
The Bucks’ collectively, and Antetokounmpo individually, claim they’ve been lacking in staying even-keeled and focused on the present in their unsuccessful playoff campaigns over the previous several seasons. This was especially true the past two seasons, when Milwaukee, after entering the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, was eliminated in losses to the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals two years ago and the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals last season, both on the NBA’s bubble.
The Bucks, on the other hand, have been determined to take a different strategy this season. Milwaukee has done exactly that despite falling down in each of the previous three postseason series, including 2-0 losses to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Suns in this one.
The Bucks have done so in large part because to their leader’s ability to remain in the present, enjoy the competition, and let the results fall where they may.
Antetokounmpo remarked, “We didn’t go too high, we didn’t get too low.” “We were down 2-0 to Brooklyn at the time. I returned. We completed our task. We’re currently offline. We returned and completed our task. In the conference finals, we were down 2-0 against Atlanta. We returned and completed our task. We were up against Miami at the time. We went there and completed our task.
“We continued concentrating and forming excellent habits.” As I have said, I believe it stems from Coach [Mike Budenholzer], Khris [Middleton], Jrue [Holiday], and myself. Then you pass it on to the rest of the squad. As a result, we performed a fantastic job.
“Is it now going to work out in the championship? Who knows what will happen. But, regardless of the outcome, I’m very proud of this group. We are very proud of all of our efforts.”
Antetokounmpo has been calm and engaged throughout his media availability throughout the Finals, whether on practice days or after victories and defeats on game days, after revealing that his longterm girlfriend is expecting the couple’s second child during his press conference.
The Bucks have absorbed that same environment, demonstrating their unflappability in circumstances that would have sent them spiraling in the past — and, eventually, sent them home short of their objectives.
Milwaukee is banking on this mentality to get them through the next 24 hours leading up to Tuesday’s game (9 p.m. ET, ABC).
“We’re treating it like every regular-season game we’ve played, every postseason game we’ve played,” Middleton said. “Taking each game one at a time, each game must be won. That is all there is to it.”
Milwaukee’s ability to handle things in this manner is due in part to the hardships and tribulations this group has shared. With the exception of Holiday and P.J. Tucker, who joined this season, the team’s nucleus has gone through the postseason disappointments of the previous two seasons. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo and Middleton have been teammates in Milwaukee for the last eight seasons and have played in over 60 postseason games together.
That’s a lot of common ground to draw from and learn from, especially given the Bucks’ attempt to reinvent their past this time around.
Those previous setbacks, Antetokounmpo added, “helped me develop, evolve, and become more psychologically strong.” “It doesn’t really make a difference.” This is a game in the playoffs. Anything may happen at any time. We were up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals [against Toronto] and then lost four straight. I’m attempting to imagine what the opposing team’s mentality was like.
“Milwaukee is down 2-0, and they’re thinking they need to go home, defend their home court, and then come back here and grab one.” I’m simply trying to think about what they did and attempt to learn as much as possible from our errors and shortcomings.
“I’m not one to dwell on the past. I attempt to take what I’ve learned and move on. I believe it has helped me in my professional life. ‘They accomplished it, why can’t we?’ I wondered when we were down 2-0. This kind of stuff. ‘Finish’ while we’re ahead 2-0. ‘Get the job done,’ says the narrator.”
He also acknowledged that he hasn’t always been able to maintain that mindset.
“I believe I was going too high and too low early in my career,” he said. “We played a terrific game, and I was really pleased because you feel the energy from the audience, the supporters screaming and all that, and how the journey back home, whether we were on the plane or anything, we were here at home, playing at home, how I felt wonderful coming back home.” I was getting too high, and the loss seemed like the end of the world to me.
“I don’t think that happened this year, win or lose. I used to be the same way. I simply accept whatever happens because I think I’m meant to be there at that particular moment and location. So I’m not too concerned about the result.”
It’s a mentality Antetokounmpo will attempt to carry into the most important game of his life, as he tries to lead his Bucks to the same result they’ve had in the previous three games, all of which have brought Milwaukee closer to winning a title for the first time in a half-century.