Giannis Antetokounmpo rises to the occasion and up next is his Game 7 moment

MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo walked out of the Bradley Center for perhaps the final time this season, clutching a pair of shoes the way he does a basketball on the court. He demands more and more out of himself as a professional, as the face of the Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise, and the increasing responsibilities have grown along with him. Some in ways he expects and welcomes, such as leadership and production, and others, like his voice within the franchise, in ways he’s learning to accept and thrive under.

“I’m good, I’m good. No pressure,” Antetokounmpo said on his walk out of the locker room Thursday night.

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Antetokounmpo has pushed the Bucks to within one victory of the Eastern Conference semifinals, punctuating a 97-86 victory in Game 6 Thursday night with 31 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and two steals in 41 minutes. He vowed to be more aggressive after attempting just 10 shots in Milwaukee’s Game 5 loss Tuesday, and he was vindicated: 23 shot attempts and 13 makes by forcing the issue, from his eight free-throw attempts to foul trouble on the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. Each team has won at home so far in this series, and here comes Antetokounmpo in his first Game 7, giving Bucks officials hope Thursday night that, yes, anything is possible in Beantown.

“I have no expectations,” Antetokounmpo said. “I only know that me and my team are going to come and play hard in Game 7. We have to come to play because we don’t only play for the team, but we play for this city. I know me and my team are going to be ready.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo is feeling it after a first-half dunk Thursday night. (AP)

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks escaped Game 6 with lethargic shooting from Boston’s core scorers: Jayson Tatum (22 points), Terry Rozier (16 points), Brown (14 points) and Al Horford (10 points). Brown and Horford combined for nine fouls, and the four players combined to shoot 21 of 54 from the floor. The Bucks, meanwhile, received support from Khris Middleton (16 points) and Malcolm Brogdon (16 points), and activity from Jabari Parker (11 rebounds and nine points) and Thon Maker (seven rebounds and one block).

“Game 7’s are fun and definitely a challenge,” said Horford, who will play his sixth Game 7. “We’ve worked hard all season for this position to play at home.” There will be a raucous atmosphere greeting the Celtics and Bucks in Boston on Saturday night, and as Middleton said: “It’s do or die. All or nothing.”

These Bucks have gradually become Antetokounmpo’s franchise in more ways than just on the court, where he has become one of the league’s transcendent players. There wasn’t a move made this season by the organization without gauging Antetokounmpo’s mindset, and it will assuredly remain that way because of what he means to the franchise. Milwaukee has been respectful of interim coach Joe Prunty’s job, which GM Jon Horst announced would be for the remainder of the season on the January day the franchise fired Jason Kidd. It’s unmistakable, however, that once the Bucks’ season is over the Bucks’ job will be one of the league’s most appealing. There’s a new arena coming next season, and Antetokounmpo is still the shiniest entity here.

Antetokounmpo brings allure to this Bucks franchise, which welcomed former President Bill Clinton courtside next to co-owner Marc Lasry, his son and Bucks executive Alex Lasry, and Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, and teammates witness Antetokounmpo’s desire for more each game. With over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo had passed the ball to Brogdon and requested it back. Brogdon surveyed the floor, passed the ball to Eric Bledsoe, and suddenly Antetokounmpo ran to start a pick-and-roll where Bledsoe fed him the ball for a layup. Antetokounmpo keeps coming and coming, wanting the moment.

“I’ve seen that ability before, and Giannis wants to be the best,” said guard Matthew Dellavedova, who won an NBA championship with Cleveland and LeBron James in 2016. “He’s definitely got a chance to do that. He grabbed the game and took it.”

Antetokounmpo grabbed his shoes before walking to greet his family and friends in the hallways after the game, cracking jokes and strolling out of Bradley Center. One more in this best-of-seven series. All good, all good, the Bucks’ franchise cornerstone said late Thursday. Game 7 awaits.

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