On the eve of Game 6, Giannis preaching focus

MILWAUKEE – For eight years, Giannis Antetokounmpo has worked toward the moment he and the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in right now: one win away from an NBA championship.

So it should come with little surprise that Monday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours before playing the biggest game of his NBA career, when he and the Bucks can win the title in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at home against the Phoenix Suns, Antetokounmpo admitted that the mantra that he’s repeated ad nauseum throughout these playoffs – to stay focused on the present, and not think about the future – is harder to live by than ever.

“It’s hard, man,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile after Monday’s practice at Fiserv Forum. “It’s hard. Because you work so hard to be in that moment, which is tomorrow. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself.

“But this is the time that you got to be the most disciplined. That’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to be as disciplined as possible. Don’t get too excited. Don’t get too pumped up for the game. None of that. I can’t play the game right now … right now, there’s nothing I can do about that. So I don’t even try to think about that. But it’s very hard not to. Sometimes you sleep and you’re dreaming about the game.

“But this is the time that we have to be disciplined individually … we got to be disciplined and we cannot worry about that. We cannot worry about having plans of celebrating. None of that, until it’s done. And that is the mindset I’m going to have until tomorrow.”

Staying even-keeled, and focused on the moment, are key components the Bucks collectively, and Antetokounmpo personally, say they’ve been missing in their failed playoff runs over the past few seasons. This was particularly the case the past two years, when Milwaukee – after entering the playoffs with the top seed in the Eastern Conference – crashed out in losses to the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals two years ago and to the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals in the NBA’s bubble last year.

Throughout this season, however, the Bucks have been determined to approach things differently this time around. And, despite falling behind in each of the last three playoffs series – including going down 0-2 to both the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Suns in this series – Milwaukee has managed to do just that.

The Bucks have done so, in large part, because their leader has been able to do so by sticking to that mantra of staying in the moment, enjoying the competition and letting the results fall where they may.

“We didn’t get too high, we didn’t get too low,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were down 0-2 to Brooklyn. Came back. We did our job. We’re down right now. We came back, did our job. We were down against Atlanta [in the conference finals]. Came back, did our job. We were up against Miami. Went there, did our job.

“We kept focusing, building good habits. I think it comes from, as I said, Coach [Mike Budenholzer], Khris [Middleton], Jrue [Holiday], me, to have that mentality. And then you pass down to the whole team. So we did a really good job.

“Now, is it going to end up well in the championship? Who knows. But no matter how it ends up, I’m really proud of this team. Really proud of all the work we have put in.”

Antetokounmpo, who revealed during his press conference that his longtime girlfriend is currently expecting the couple’s second child, has been relaxed and engaging throughout the Finals during his press conferences, whether they come on practice days or after wins and losses on gamedays.

That same atmosphere has permeated throughout the Bucks, who have proven to be unflappable in situations that, in the past, would’ve sent them spiraling – and, ultimately, sent them home falling short of their goals.

It’s a mindset Milwaukee is hoping can pull it through what will be a very long 24 hours before Tuesday night’s tipoff.

“Treating it like every regular-season game that we have had, every playoff game that we have had,” Middleton said. “Taking one game at a time and every game is a must-win. That’s it.”

Part of what has allowed Milwaukee to approach things that way is the trials and tribulations this group has gone through together. The core of the team – other than Holiday and P.J. Tucker, who arrived this season – have been through those playoff failures of the past two seasons together. Antetokounmpo and Middleton, meanwhile, have been teammates for the past eight seasons here in Milwaukee, and have played more than 60 playoff games together in their careers.

That’s a lot of shared experiences to lean on and learn from – particularly as the Bucks have tried to rewrite their history this time around.

“It helped me mature and grow and become more mentally tough,” Antetokounmpo said of those past failures. “It doesn’t really matter. This is a playoff game. Anything can happen. I remember in the [2019] Eastern Conference Finals [against Toronto], we were up 2-0 and lost four straight. I’m trying to think what was the mindset of the other team.

“Leaving Milwaukee down 2-0, and now they’re thinking they got to go back home, protect home court and then come back here, get one. I’m just trying to think about what they did and try to learn from our mistakes and our failures as much as possible.

“I don’t focus on the past. I try to learn from it and move on. I think it has helped me throughout my career. When we were down 2-0, [I thought], ‘They did it, why cannot we do it? That kind of thing. Or when we’re up 2-0, finish. Get the job done.”

He also admitted he hasn’t always been able to lock into that type of mentality.

“I think, early in my career, I was getting too high, too low,” he said. “We played a good game, I was so happy, because you feel the intensity from the crowd, the fans cheering and all that, and how the trip back home if we were on the flight or whatever the case might be, we were here at home, playing at home, how I felt good going back home. I was getting too high, and maybe the loss I felt like it was the end of the world.

“I feel like this year, lose or win, that did not happen. I was the same kind of guy. I just live with whatever outcome comes because I believe that I’m supposed to be there in that time and place. So I don’t really worry about the outcome.”

It’s a mindset Antetokounmpo will now try to apply to the biggest game of his life, as he tries to lift his Bucks to the same outcome they’ve had the past three games – all wins that have moved Milwaukee to within winning a championship for the first time in a half-century.

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