TORONTO – Giannis Antetokounmpo’s exit from the podium late Saturday night was as abrupt as his exit from the NBA postseason.
It would be nice for Milwaukee Bucks fans to think that their team’s superstar and MVP favorite vamoosed, stage left, before his postgame interview session ended so he could rush to the nearest gymnasium to start working on his game for the 2019-20 NBA season.
That’s what next season will be about, after all: Antetokounmpo’s capability to get better individually, the Bucks’ capacity to perform better in circumstances such as this, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and together their potential to win two more games next time to advance to the Finals and really chase a championship.
Fact is, Antetokounmpo did not sneak back onto the court at Scotiabank Arena, scene of the Bucks’ second-half meltdown (a disastrous 26-3 skid across the quarter break) and elimination by the Toronto Raptors, 100-94. According to league sources, he chose not to answer a question put to him and teammate Khris Middleton by an ESPN reporter who wrote a story Saturday evening speculating about Antetokounmpo’s loyalty to and future in Milwaukee.
“Work my butt off, come back again next year and be a better basketball player and a better teammate.”— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) May 26, 2019
Giannis on his offseason plans: pic.twitter.com/mhQmEYOzr2
So the Bucks star, after answering a half dozen questions as he sat front and center with Middleton, ignored her question about the Bucks’ limited postseason experience. He rose silently, grabbed a water bottle and walked off, leaving Middleton to handle the awkward moment.
As podium moments go, it was notable. It’s rare for an NBA player, on live TV, to simply ignore a question and leave. Even Russell Westbrook makes sure to utter a dismissive, “Next question” when he doesn’t like the query or the person asking it.
However, a better approach can be his if he absorbs not only the lessons of the loss but also the reactions on social media and elsewhere that can instantly flare into the sort of thing he dealt with on the podium.
Want to shut people up? Want to end all the “If the Bucks don’t do this, Giannis is going to do that…” guessing and conjecture?
Then Antetokounmpo is going to have to raise his game beyond its current all-NBA first team level. Milwaukee is going to have to do more than just run it back with a holdover roster and style of play. The Bucks actually need to emerge from the East and reach The Finals, and maybe even take advantage of some Golden State's decline by next June the way they and Toronto battled to exploit LeBron James’ departure from their conference this spring.
That would shut up everyone trying to invent a wedge between Antetokounmpo and his team.
It might seem greedy and overly demanding to expect bigger and better things out of a player who already is doing so much. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer admitted as much after referring briefly to Game 3 as one in which Antetokounmpo didn’t play with his customary force.
“I’m just being critical of Giannis and trying to push him,” the Bucks coach said. “He’s doing very, very close to exactly what we need and what we want him to do.”
Uh, not exactly. You know the saying derived from a Bible passage: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Based on Antetkounmpo’s marvelous physical attributes, there still are ways he can improve as a basketball player. And yes, do more for his franchise.
Let’s flash back 13 months to the night Milwaukee was eliminated from the first round in seven games against Boston. Here’s what Antetokounmpo said then, as reported by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann: “I'm the best player on the court, both teams. But from the start, the game plan was to stop me."
Nothing has changed. Toronto’s strategy against Milwaukee was the same, more than a year later: Anybody but Giannis. As in, Raptors coach Nick Nurse had his guys running multiple defenders at Antetokounmpo, either as a wall of resistance to his forays up court or in double-teams and traps in the halfcourt.
Toronto wanted the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands and, when he did catch it, they wanted their defense in his head. That included Leonard, a debilitating on-ball defender who seemed to slow any Bucks player he confronted (as Antetokounmpo often did in the series against any Raptor).
So what’s a Greek Freak to do? Plenty.
He can develop a more reliable jump shot, for one. He can work on his left hand, so he’s not constantly trying to score with his right when on the left side of the basket. He can refine his post-up game, so he can catch the ball near the rim without always having to drive it into the paint himself.
Antetokounmpo can improve at the foul line – please. He made 35 free throws and missed 25 in the series, which seems rather important when the difference between the two teams over six games was a mere six points (646-640). Leonard, for the record, shot 61 free throws and sank 54.
There’s another saying: A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. In Antetokounmpo’s case, given his jumbo-jet wingspan and king-crab hand size, there’s little that can exceed either. And Budenholzer, though he might blush a bit to continue asking, believes Antetokounmpo is capable of more.
“We feel like he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said. “At 24, some guys are – I don’t want to say they are who they are [but] some of the great ones at 24 were the same at 30 and 32. Giannis, we feel like, has got a lot of room to grow.”
Budenholzer echoed that in regard to the team, which remains to be seen. Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic will hit free agency in July. It’s important to remember that veteran guard George Hill, so helpful over the last month, was added during the season as much for his cheap buyout this summer. So the roster will look different in ways big or small.
And maybe it should. There were numerous times against Toronto that Antetokounmpo made exactly the right play, passing the ball out of double teams, only to have a shooter miss or fail to launch.
All season, the Bucks had been a let-it-fly team, ranking second in 3-point attempts and makes, while abhorring 2-point shots (No. 27 in the NBA). But they got sideways from the arc against the Raptors, making only 31 percent in the six games.
And facing elimination Saturday, this team that lived by the three died by it – Middleton’s 3-pointer with 3:46 left in the third quarter was Milwaukee’s last. The Bucks missed their final 11 from or beyond the arc. In the second half overall, they were 3-for-16, about what you’d expect from a 1980s team turning to the three in desperation and without much confidence.
There were other shaky performances in Game 6 or the series, enough to spark questions again about the quality of help around Antetokounmpo. But not surprisingly, he didn’t throw anyone or even any aspect of Milwaukee’s style under the proverbial bus.
“I don’t think anything has to change,” Antetokounmpo said. “What I did was trust my teammates. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole year. If we lose by doing that, by trusting one another, by moving the ball … by trusting our habits, it’s OK.”
Moments later, he added: “It’s something that I take pride in, getting better in the offseason. So hopefully now I can work on the right things, listen to my coaches … work my butt off and come back again next year and just be a better basketball player and a better teammate.”
A minute or so after that, one answer early, Antetokounmpo walked off into summer with more control than anyone else in changing the outcome, which in turn will change any narrative.
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