MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo tried his best to have a straight face, but even he couldn’t pull off his Marshawn Lynch impression cleanly.
“I’m just here not to get fined,” Antetokounmpo said before breaking into a wide smile as his media session began.
Even the notoriously tight Mike Budenholzer was in a good enough mood — considering his facial expressions are pained and confused, calling himself a jerk for how he replied to a media member’s question.
If the Bucks are feeling the pressure of being down 0-2 to the formidable Phoenix Suns, they aren’t showing it. They’re intent on staying loose, it appears, as opposed to being suffocated by the moment.
Perhaps they saw how the Suns were lifted by the home crowd that hadn’t seen an NBA Finals game in nearly 30 years and feel being back home will produce a similar result.
They’re also feeling somewhat comfortable in facing a deficit, dropping an early game to Atlanta in the conference finals and getting royally spanked by the Brooklyn Nets in the semifinals before rebounding to win both series.
It goes without saying, Trae Young got hurt in Game 3 in Atlanta, and before that, Kyrie Irving’s ankle nearly touched the hardwood floor to alter the result of both. It wouldn’t be wise to count on catastrophic circumstances as part of the game plan, but merely being in a friendly atmosphere will probably lead to controlled urgency as opposed to desperation.
“I know it’s the Finals. Like, tomorrow, we all understand what kind of game we are getting ourselves into,” Antetokounmpo said. “So we know what we got to do. But at the end of the day, you got to keep it light.”
It’s easy to take that tone now, especially with the extra two days in between as opposed to going every other day. But if the Suns get off to a blistering start or take the Bucks’ best shot early, the basketball will start to feel like an anvil.
You don’t have to look far in the Bucks’ history to see a team wracked with pressure building in a playoff series or playoff game and wonder if things will repeat here.
“You cannot tell yourself, ‘Oh, it’s the Finals. You got to do this,’” he said. “There’s so much pressure, man. No, like, it’s still basketball. It’s easy to say, hard to do, but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way.”
Antetokounmpo’s mood almost belied the fact he’s wearing heavy icing on that left knee. He discovered he can be a big scorer in Game 2, putting up an incredible performance that ultimately went for naught.
But if he’s truly Bionic Man and this isn’t some mirage bound to bite him in the behind at some point in the next two weeks, he can take solace in knowing Khris Middleton gets better as series progress and Antetokounmpo himself may have found a comfort zone offensively.
He’ll walk out with the ultimate confidence and added adrenaline of being in front of a packed house that hasn’t hosted a Finals game in around 50 years.
“Knowing I enjoy things, I really like to put my heart into it. If I don’t enjoy it, I’m just going through the motions,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have come a long way to be in this position, and we got to try to make the best out of it. That’s what we did, I guess, in the first round, in the second round, in the third round.”
This is a moment for him, already having crossed a critical checkpoint in his career. Even though he wasn’t available to see it through, he carried his team to the Finals and is still young enough to anticipate more trips in his prime.
But all he has to do is look across the way and see the frailty of this moment. He marvels at Chris Paul’s effectiveness at his advanced basketball age, which of course, is accelerated because of Paul’s desperation.
It’s Paul’s first chance and maybe last chance, certainly his best chance, at winning a ring. He’s preparing for the adjustments before the adjustments, even if there aren’t going to be many if Bucks history is a guide.
“I say this, just like we play Connect Four, just like you play Sorry, this is a game. This is a game,” Paul said. “Everybody is always saying, ‘Oh, that’s all you got to do.’ We were just talking about it on the bus. ‘Oh, you just got to do this.’ If it was that easy, everybody would.”
And considering the Suns have the best road record in the NBA this season, having also won games in Los Angeles (both of them) and polished Denver in a sweep, taking a light approach for either side could be good but would prove nothing.
“One of the things we say before we run out on the court is — you can be so serious and all that, we just say have fun,” Paul said. “Have fun. And I think that’s what keeps us focused, remembering that this is a game. We got to go out there and enjoy ourselves.”
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