TORONTO – Whenever LeBron James struggled through the sort of playoff performance Giannis Antetokounmpo had Sunday, he seemed to want to put it behind him as swiftly as he could.
His routine — assuming it wasn’t The Finals, where he got summoned to the podium, win or lose — typically went like this: the door to the Cleveland or Miami dressing room would swing open and there James would be, ready to face the questions, antsy to move on ASAP. Once he ‘fessed up to the shots he’d missed or the plays he’d botched, that was it.
Oh, you knew he’d be looking plenty at video of that game in the hours before he played again, as a way to find and fix the flaws. But for public consumption at least, he shed it fast, like an ill-fitting suit.
Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ young star, is still learning this face-of-the-franchise and cutthroat competitor stuff. He took his time afterward in the spartan visitors’ locker room at Scotiabank Arena.
There he sat, with his knees wrapped and his feet plunged into an ice bath.
The Kia MVP candidate stared at the score sheet that had been handed to him, the one bearing all sorts of dreary news from the double-overtime setback that cut Milwaukee’s lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1.
Antetokounmpo barely looked up as the semicircle of cameras, microphones and reporters around him grew with media people tip-toeing that fine line between giving him some space and blocking out for position whenever he’d finally take their questions. He barely looked up when Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer strode through the dressing room and tapped him on his left knee, a little atta-boy bonding near the end of a long, disappointing night.
While teammates poked habitually at their phones in the aftermath of Milwaukee’s 118-112 loss, Antetokounmpo mostly let his lie there on the seat next to him.
By the standards he set this year as an MVP favorite, he knew he’d had a lousy night. The reporters standing there, like fans everywhere, knew he’d struggled in ways rarely seen since his first taste of the postseason four years ago. And he knew that they knew, so…
“Obviously it wasn’t my best game,” Antetokounmpo said eventually. “I’ve got to be more aggressive… I’ve got to make the right play.”
Defensively, Antetokounmpo was pretty much his usual self, grabbing 23 rebounds, challenging Toronto’s players out on the floor and had four blocked shots. Offensively, his 12 points were his fewest in a playoff game since he was first dipping his toe into postseason waters as a 20-year-old back in 2015.
Through three quarters, Antetokounmpo had only six points on 3-for-8 shooting. Seven Milwaukee players and five Raptors had outscored him to that point, and he hadn’t earned his way to the foul line even once.
If you don’t feel bad when you play bad, you don’t need to be playing this game. That’s the feeling that drives you to success. I’m happy [Antetokounmpo’s] feeling like that.
What made it all worse was that the game was sitting there, aching to be taken by anyone. Antetokounmpo got himself going a bit in the fourth quarter, making a couple of shots and earning five free throws. But he missed three and went scoreless while playing the entire first overtime.
He fouled out just 36 seconds into the second OT, but didn’t object to it. Antetokounmpo just took it and exited, sealing it as one of those “not your night, kid” hard lessons.
Asked about the frustration that Antetokounmpo might have shown to teammates, if not the public, Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe said: “If you don’t feel bad when you play bad, you don’t need to be playing this game. That’s the feeling that drives you to success. I’m happy he’s feeling like that.”
Antetokounmpo’s game didn’t just spin sideways on its own. Raptors coach Nick Nurse switched some defensive duties around and assigned Kawhi Leonard — a two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year with the wingspan, instincts and reflexes to confound any open-court player — as the tip of Toronto’s spear against “The Greek Freak.”
As expected, Toronto sent second defenders at him, the surest way to get the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands or force him into difficult shots. So he tried to make the right basketball plays, as they say, and sometimes he did — he dished a team-high seven assists. Sometimes, though, he did not, turning over the ball eight times.
For the record, Antetokounmpo has played 31 postseason games in his young career. In the games in which he has scored fewer than 19 points, his team’s record is 3-6. When he scores 19 or more, the Bucks are 14-8.
Not to lay it all at Antetokounmpo’s feet. Fellow All-Star Khris Middleton was way off his usual offensive form, missing 13 of his 16 shots. And Bledsoe matched that. Together, those three starters were a combined 11-of-48. The rest of the team shot 50 percent (27 of 54).
“We have the utmost respect and belief that the next game is not going to be as bad as [this] was,” said guard George Hill, who scored 24 points off the bench. “But I know it’s sitting in their head that they go for a combined 11-of-48 or something like that. We’re not worried about it.”
Right. Who’s even counting?
Budenholzer and his staff are going to have to figure out ways to get scoring opportunities without being stymied by all the defensive traffic. Teammates are going to have to shoot better, to keep those diggers honest in their matchups. And Antetokounmpo is going to need to play more aggressively and take what happened in Game 3 very personally.
He wasn’t quite there yet, Sunday night.
“Obviously I want to stay aggressive. But we stick to our game plan,” Antetokounmpo said. “Some days I’m going to have a bad night. But my team has to focus on doing their job and I’ll do mine.”
Said Brook Lopez, after watching the throng swallow Antetokounmpo on the opposite side of the room: “We know he’s not going to quit or stop playing. He’s going to continue to be him.”
As he talked, Lopez’s phone began vibrating next to him. He said it was Bucks GM Jon Horst calling and, in a bit of gallows humor after a stinging loss, joked that maybe he shouldn’t answer.
“I don’t know if I should pick up or not,” the Milwaukee center said, “’cause I want to be here tomorrow.”
Antetokounmpo has a call to answer now, too. In Game 4, Tuesday.
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