Playoff loss drives Antetokounmpo as he aims to regain title

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is motivated by winning. In his mind, he didn’t do enough of that last season.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward spent the NBA offseason working on his game and body – while also representing his country – as he makes a run at another championship.

It is what drives the 27-year-old two-time MVP.

Sure, he is flattered to be thought of as the world’s greatest basketball player, but Antetokounmpo says that title belongs to the best player hoisting the NBA championship trophy, That wasn’t Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo considers Golden State’s Stephen Curry the best in the world by virtue of the Warriors’ status as reigning champions.

“Do I believe I’m the best player in the world? No,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think the best player in the world is the person that is the last one standing, is the person that takes his team to the final, to the finish line and helps them win the game, win games and become champion.”

That explains how Antetokounmpo’s 10th NBA season is different from the rest as the Bucks prepare for their opener Thursday night at Philadelphia.

After spending much of his career chasing his first title before leading the 2020-21 Bucks to their first championship in a half-century, he now understands what it’s like to have that crown wrested from him, Antetokounmpo doesn’t want to feel that way again.

“I kind of got jealous of Golden State and seeing them in the parade and the ESPYs,” Antetokounmpo said. “You know that feeling now. You know what is getting stripped away from you.”

Antetokounmpo certainly wasn’t to blame for the Bucks’ seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He averaged 29.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists against Boston to become the first player to record 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a playoff series.

That followed a regular season in which Antetokounmpo averaged a career-high 29.9 points and surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Bucks’ all-time leading scorer.

“He’s an amazing player that does amazing things,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think that’s why people turn on their TVs. That’s why people buy the tickets. They want to come in and see something special or different that they can talk about that night or the next day. Giannis probably does as many or more of those things than anybody in the world.”

But that’s not enough — not for Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee is counting on Antetokounmpo to lead a roster that returns virtually intact from last season, with a nucleus featuring three-time All-Star Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez. Middleton underwent surgery on his left wrist this summer and won’t be ready for the start of the season.

The Bucks’ biggest change is a greater defensive emphasis on containing 3-point shooters than they’ve shown in previous seasons. The Celtics made 22 3-pointers in their Game 7 victory over the Bucks.

“At the end of the day, defense is all about effort,” Antetokounmpo said. “If the effort is not there, whatever you come with, whatever scheme, whatever plan you have, it’s not going to work.”

Antetokounmpo doesn’t believe his busy summer will wear him down as he goes through the grind of an NBA season. He expects his EuroBasket experience this summer will make it even tougher for NBA defenses to contain him. Antetokounmpo joined his brothers – Bucks teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Chicago’s Kostas Antetokounmpo – on the Greek team that reached the quarterfinals.

“The game in Europe is way harder than the game in the NBA,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I know the talent obviously in the NBA is way higher, but the space, you have a lot of lanes to drive the ball, a lot of lanes to create. Over there, it’s more intense.”

Antetokounmpo went into more detail by explaining how teams in Europe would throw a variety of different defenses at him, making it tougher for him to find open spaces.

“There’s no lanes to drive” in Europe, Antetokounmpo said. “It’s just more physical. I don’t know if it’s because the talent’s less and you have to be more physical to catch up, but it’s harder. I think always playing there prepares me for the (NBA) season.”

He’s already been through this before.

Antetokounmpo expects a similar situation to what he encountered after playing in the FIBA World Cup in China in 2019. Antetokounmpo returned to the U.S. later that year and produced his second straight MVP season.

He acknowledges the pressure associated with playing for his country but also said it made him appreciate the game that much more.

“Even though we came up one game short from the medals, I feel like people had hope,” Antetokounmpo said. “That was the most amazing thing. People were following us on the road everywhere we went. They were cheering for us, cheering for the flag.”

He wants to make sure he can build on that tenacity he showed this past summer.

“I’m always going to be desperate,” Antetokounmpo said. “I always try to maximize my potential. I’m blessed to be sitting in this seat, you know, and I’m not going to take that for granted.”

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.