CHICAGO – You can have an MVP, and an all-defensive team point guard and center. You can have experience. You can have a roster you think is better than one that won a championship. But there’s always an intangible in sports. The human element.
If there is something Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven to be tuned to, it’s that ethereal thing. So after disappointing Game 2 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, he took a moment to contextualize a feeling.
He felt his team had not really enjoyed the first two games, that perhaps they were a bit too tight. As is his way, Antetokounmpo had a solution for it.
“Have more fun,” he said Wednesday. He concluded his observation with a simple declaration, too.
“If we’re not going to enjoy the game we should stay home.”
Reminded of Antetokounmpo’s comment before his team took the United Center court Friday night, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer smiled.
“He’s the best. And I think that’s what makes him a great leader, makes him special,” he said. “He’s incredibly competitive. He plays and works as hard as anybody. But you know, I think he likes to play with a joy. He likes for our team to have joy. I think that’s part of my responsibility as a coach and his as a leader and kind of walk that line. It’s a road map that we’ve followed. And certainly we just can’t forget. He plays with joy, plays with passion.
“We’re at our best when; I don’t know what the right word or the perfect descriptor is, but I think he’s got his sense and a pulse for it and hopefully we all do. It may be different for different players or different teams, but that’s when we’re at our best.”
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“You got to have that balance of like, you want to win so bad, right? You care so much about trying to win but sometimes that makes you tight, sometimes that makes you tense, sometimes it makes you overthink, sometimes it makes me like … when I miss a shot like, ahhhh!” Pat Connaughton said after the Game 3 win. “When in reality it’s not about making or missing shots, it’s about taking the right shot. It’s about being excited. It’s about being happy.
“It’s about playing with that joy that Giannis always talks about because then you’re playing free and you’re not even thinking about the last shot because you knew it was the right decision, and sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t .”
Milwaukee looked its best in a romp over Chicago as more shots went in than not, even without an injured Khris Middleton.
Antetokounmpo had just a single basket in the first quarter but was facilitating, getting his teammates open. And then when it was time to score, Jrue Holiday found Antetokounmpo for lobs that got his teammates on the bench to their feet – including a ridiculous reverse slam.
If there is something as consistent as Antetokounmpo’s search for joy in the game, it’s that he won’t ask of others what he will not display himself. So there wasn’t a shootaround dictum or pregame speech. Just, playing freely.
“I think a lot of times Giannis leads with his demeanor and his actions. He does speak up, but it’s not often,” Grayson Allen said. “I think that was more of an attitude and approach he brought to the game to follow his lead. I agree 100% with that. That’s how I try to approach the game – you have to have fun with it. Usually when I have fun I play a lot harder, too. You have to always be reminded of that.”
Allen felt, and heard, the reminders too.
After he absorbed contact from Bulls center Tristan Thompson on a layup, Allen’s momentum carried him into a boisterous bench that shouted and pushed him in celebration. Then they playfully booed him.
“Those kind of moments are fun,” Allen said with his trademark grin. “It’s a moment you have, but then it’s like immediately shared with your whole team. Those are the cool ones.”
Bobby Portis agreed that Antetokounmpo’s message hit home – and he felt partially responsible. He felt his absence for 3½ quarters of Game 2 with a right eye injury adversely affected his team by robbing them of his energy.
So, despite being on the road, Portis was most excited to once again be the embodiment of that fun Antetokounmpo called for. Put in the starting role in place of Middleton, Portis scored 18 points and pull down 16 rebounds in Game 3. But more than that, he screamed. He hustled. He shimmied.
“Sometimes, bro, in a long haul of a season guys on the team are regular individuals in real life, too,” Portis said. “The season can go up and down, guys sometimes need that energy boost from somewhere.
“It’s the biggest stage right now, playoffs, there’s 16 teams left. Fourteen teams at home, whatever they’re doing, enjoying their vacation, we’re here at work. As long as we’re here we have to be as all in as we can be while we’re here because you never know. You can be gone tomorrow.”
Lori Nickel contributed to this report.