As a writer, you’re taught to avoid clichés. Surely publicists and team public relations officials train athletes to do the same. But ultimately it’s unavoidable. With cameras and recorders constantly pointed toward your face, game after game, day after day, it’s hard to come up with fresh, original, insightful remarks about a game you’ve been playing since you took your first steps.
That’s part of the reason why the philosophical monologue from Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo the day before Game 5 of the NBA Finals resonated with such a wide audience — from die-hard fans to people who have never watched basketball. The honesty and thoughtfulness involved in Antetokounmpo’s answer, sparked by a brilliant question from The Athletic’s Sam Amick, is as rare as the mythical unicorn to which Giannis is so often compared.
“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego: ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’ When I focus on the future, it’s my pride: ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here.
“I kind of try to focus on the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectation. That’s going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. I think I’ve had people throughout my life that helped me with that. But that is a skill that I’ve tried to, like, kind of — how do you say it, perfect it, master it. And it’s been working so far. So I’m not going to stop.”
It’s one thing to say the right thing, but it’s quite another to back it up on the court. That’s exactly what Antetokounmpo did in Milwaukee’s pivotal 123-119 Game 5 road win over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, which puts the Bucks one win away from their first NBA championship in 50 years. Antetokounmpo finished with his usual, dominant stat line of 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but his performance was marked by unselfishness, patience, and, yes, humility.
The Greek Freak came out of the gates strong, scoring eight of the team’s first 18 points. The problem was that the Suns were blowing the Bucks out of the building, leading by 16 at the end of the first quarter. With Giannis on the bench to start the second quarter, the Bucks quickly chipped away at the lead thanks to brilliant play from Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. Milwaukee only trailed by three when Giannis checked back in with 6:14 left in the first half.
This is where ego and pride — those nagging feelings that Antetokounmpo so eloquently described in Friday’s soliloquy — could have crept up on the two-time MVP.
He could have suckled his ego with thoughts about the past: “I’m averaging 32 points and 14 rebounds in my first Finals. It’s time to take over.”
He could have succumbed to his pride with thoughts about the future: “When I go for 50 tonight and bring my team back, it will cement my NBA legacy.”
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Instead, he chose humility, arguably the toughest option of the three, and stayed in the present. Rather than trying to force the issue by prying his way to the basket or taking contested fadeaways, Antetokounmpo made the simple play and allowed his thriving teammates to flourish.
First, Giannis could have easily forced his way to the basket in transition to try to get a layup or get fouled, but instead, he recognized that he had drawn three Suns defenders and fired a beautiful one-handed, no-look laser to the corner for a wide-open Portis 3-pointer.
A couple of possessions later, Antetokounmpo gets the ball on the wing facing a dwindling shot clock. He once again gets into the lane, but rather than force his way through the Suns’ wall, he kicks it out to Middleton, who blows past the Jae Crowder closeout for a floater.
Giannis had only two field goal attempts in the second quarter as the Bucks racked up 43 points and turned a 16-point first-quarter deficit into a three-point halftime lead.
Antetokounmpo picked up his scoring in the second half, putting up 20 of his 32 points, but he didn’t stop playing team basketball. He came into Game 5 averaging 3.6 screen assists per game in the playoffs, up from 2.8 in the regular season, according to NBA.com. On Saturday he had five screen assists and was particularly active as a roll man for Holiday and Middleton. Watch how he clobbers Mikal Bridges on this screen, freeing up Middleton to hit a baseline fadeaway over Deandre Ayton.
And finally, there was an unselfish play that might have gone unnoticed. After the most thrilling play of the NBA Finals — when Holiday stole the ball from Devin Booker and then threw a lob to Antetokounmpo, who was fouled while completing the dunk — Giannis missed the free throw.
The ball was batted into the air, and Giannis could have easily secured it with two hands. Instead, he tipped it back to Khris Middleton, a much better free throw shooter, who knocked down one out of two to secure the win.
Pride and ego would have told Antetokounmpo, who had missed three consecutive clutch free throws, to grab the ball and prove to everyone that he can make them. Instead, his humility allowed him to realize that tipping the ball to ANY other Buck on the court would have resulted in a much higher chance of victory.
At the end of this Finals, win or lose, we’re going to see some mind-boggling numbers from Antetokounmpo. But we can’t forget that along with those came countless winning plays that are a result of his selflessness and suppression of his ego.
“We’ve got to keep playing good basketball. We can’t worry about the outcome,” Antetokounmpo said after the Game 5 win. “Just got to keep playing good basketball, and hopefully we can get a win.”