On May 27, 2019 - less than 48 hours after losing Game 6 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals to the Toronto Raptors - Giannis Antetokounmpo stood in front of reporters during his exit interview at the Milwaukee Bucks practice facility.
His message was poignant.
"Being up 2-0 and not being able to go to the NBA Finals, that kind of hurt… But whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I'm just using this as motivation. I love it. It's gonna make me a better player and when I'm in the same situation again, I'll be better."
In a normal year, Antetokounmpo would have likely faced that situation already. Due to the season's suspension in March, nearly 15 months have passed since his proclamation, and a lot has happened since.
After being named the league's MVP for the first time in his career last June, Giannis has led the Bucks to the league's best record for a second straight season with averages of 29.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists, becoming a finalist for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the process.
SERIES PREVIEW: Can Giannis set the tone vs. Orlando?
Antetokounmpo could become just the fifth player in league history to have both honours to their name, joining Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kevin Garnett - not bad company to be a part of at age 25.
Another thing the aforementioned four have in common? They each hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy during their respective careers. By many accounts, Giannis is the favourite to win both end-of-season awards but becoming a champion is clearly all that's on his mind.
Milwaukee enters the 2020 postseason having gone 3-5 during its seeding games, a period in which the team had a number ups and downs. Antetokounmpo wasn't too pleased with the Bucks showing at times, telling reporters "it wasn't frustrating because we were losing. Like, losing is part of basketball, losing is part of the game, but, obviously, what was frustrating because at times I think we wasn't ourselves."
Despite his team's shortcomings, Antetokounmpo earned Second Team All-Seeding Games honours with averages of 27.8 points and 12.2 rebounds after appearing in six of eight contests, missing the season finale due to a league-mandated one-game suspension for headbutting Wizards forward Moritz Wagner.
It's that built up passion and fire that Antetokounmpo must channel into leading Milwaukee to its ultimate goal.
Start your weekend with 10 minutes of The Greek Freak in the bubble!! pic.twitter.com/lrVznBwuEO- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) August 15, 2020
"Now it's playoff time," he continued. "I definitely don't believe in the turn-on switch that everybody talks about, like we can turn on the switch and be great, but I do believe that if everybody is on the same page and if everyone is focused and get together and watch clips and be on the same page and we know what our game plan is, I believe we can play way, way better."
Giannis has seen and done more in the postseason than the typical 25-year-old superstar. After playing a small role in the 2014 postseason as a rookie, Antetokounmpo rapidly ascended to becoming the lead man as the Bucks made first-round exits in 2017 and 2018 before he took an MVP-leap ahead of last season's run that ended just two wins shy of a Finals appearance.
We've seen it time and time again with some of the best to ever play the game: On the path to becoming a champion, there are bumps along the way.
Isiah Thomas and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons needed to get past the Boston Celtics; Jordan needed a few years to get past those same "Bad Boy" Pistons; Kobe Bryant came up short during the Conference Finals in Utah and LeBron James needed a few years to get past the Big Three era Celtics.
In his fourth postseason as the guy, can Giannis continue his rapid ascencion into superstardom by surpassing any remaining bumps in the road to win his first title?
Having the league's best record for two straight years is cool, winning back-to-back MVPs is an honour and winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season is the stuff of legends, but nothing quite compares to delivering a title.
16 wins 'til greatness.#FearTheDeer | @RedBull pic.twitter.com/0MPcT0sLzV- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) August 18, 2020
Four series. 16 wins.
For Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, their first-round meeting with the Orlando Magic is like the first of four quarters to set the tone for the remainder of their run. Expect nothing short of dominance from the team that posted a net rating of 11.7 in the first quarter this past season.
It might not be title or bust, but it's pretty close.
Giannis is on a mission.
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