‘I never expected this series to be easy’


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TORONTO — These are the nights when Giannis Antetokounmpo frets.

Through the first three quarters of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Antetokounmpo scored just six points. He finished with 12 total. He missed two key free throws in the first overtime and fouled out less than a minute into the second overtime. He committed eight turnovers in all.

The Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Toronto Raptors 118-112. The Bucks now lead the series 2-1. Antetokounmpo doesn’t accept performances like that. He is as allergic to losing as teammate Khris Middleton is to pine nuts.

“It is a culture we’ve built as a team,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN after the game. “We don’t like losing. We know we are two games away from the NBA Finals. We cannot jump steps. We have to do it a game at a time, a play at a time, a day at a time.”

A younger Antetokounmpo would not have taken a shower after a game like this. Rookie Antetokounmpo would’ve stormed out of the locker room — still dressed in his soiled, sweaty uniform — and returned to some gym somewhere to practice his missed shots.

But that was then.

Now, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has made it clear to his star player that he must save his body. So, instead of replaying each mistake on the court after a poor performance, he does a mental replay. He stares at the stat sheet in silence, reliving the turnovers and air-balled 3-pointers. He skips going to the media room podium to speak after playoff losses — preferring to address reporters in front of his locker. Sunday was no exception.

Antetokounmpo gazed at the stat sheet, his phone and the wall for more than 15 minutes as his feet soaked in a tub of icy water.

“It is good — that means he is hungry,” Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe said. “If you don’t feel bad when you play bad, you don’t need to be playing this game.”

The trouble for Antetokounmpo started early. In the first quarter, he committed two turnovers, he scored just two points and the Raptors jumped out to an early double-digit lead. It didn’t get prettier in the second quarter. Antetokounmpo coughed up the ball two more times, and at the half, the Bucks were down by seven. Every time Milwaukee cut into Toronto’s lead, the Raptors would go on a run. The Bucks couldn’t catch up.

There was a flurry of excitement late as the Bucks tied the game and forced overtime. Then another overtime.

Antetokounmpo watched the majority of the second and final overtime from the bench after fouling out. When Toronto star Kawhi Leonard laid the ball in off the glass with 32 seconds left to give the Raptors a four-point lead, Antetokounmpo sauntered over to the bench with a towel over his head and took a seat, seemingly deflated.

Antetokounmpo’s performance wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Bucks. None of the Bucks starters played particularly well in overtime. In the first extended period, the Bucks’ bench scored all seven of the team’s points. Bledsoe missed a key free throw late in the game.

Bledsoe, Middleton and Antetokounmpo combined for 32 points in the game. The trio shot just 13 percent from 3-point range and 23 percent from the field, and they had a collective 16 turnovers.

“We could’ve been up 3-0,” Antetokounmpo said of the series tally. “We didn’t play well. … I never expected this series to be easy.”

Antetokounmpo was the last player to leave the locker room Sunday night. He sat in front of his locker, sipping a blue Gatorade and answering questions from lingering reporters. When asked if he was disappointed in how he played in Game 3, though, he stood up.

“Hell no,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN, pushing himself up from the locker bench. He began to walk away, before turning back around and explaining further.

“I am Giannis,” Antetokounmpo said, putting his hand on his chest. “What I have done in my life so far — sending money to my family, put my brothers in private schools, taking care of family in Nigeria and Greece. Disappointed in a game? I’d be disappointed in myself if I was disappointed.”

In other words: It is just basketball. Antetokounmpo knows it. That doesn’t make him crave winning any less.

On the back wall of the visiting locker room, an 8-by-11-inch piece of white paper had been taped to the wall. Antetokounmpo had written “6” on it with a black marker. The paper counts down the number of wins the Bucks need to capture the NBA championship.

For now, the number will stay at six.

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