By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There are different ways to look at what Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing right now and the way that he’s doing it, but a pretty good starting point is cheesesteaks. And teddy bears. And a wrestling move.
Confused? That’s OK. Don’t worry about it. At least you’re not a defender attempting to cope with the Greek Freak in his present mood. Anyway, we’ll try to clear things up.
Antetokounmpo has bounced off his All-Star MVP award earlier this month and parlayed it into a surge of sparkling form, with a trio of triple-doubles preceding Wednesday’s dramatic overtime out-dueling of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Yet the most striking thing about the 26-year-old superstar hasn’t been his outsized scoring performances, his improved free-throw shooting or his increased assists tally. Rather, it’s what seems like his unwavering dedication to making this the season of fun.
Where do the teddy bears come into play? He wore a T-shirt recently and tweeted about the image on it — what seemed to be an exceedingly cute bear — but when you looked a bit closer, you realized that it was actually a very naughty teddy indeed.
Cheesesteaks? After downing the 76ers in a battle that might’ve been an Eastern Conference postseason preview – albeit with MVP candidate Joel Embiid injured – Antetokounmpo devoted a significant part of his postgame media conference to talking about Philadelphia’s iconic culinary treats, learning about them and, ultimately, trying to order one for urgent delivery.
As for the wrestling move reference, a Stone Cold Stunner, no less? That came after his 32 points, 15 boards and five assists took care of Philly 109-105, with Antetokounmpo sitting on the Wells Fargo Center midcourt floor following the decisive basket of a late personal run that iced the game. Grinning and surrounded by his teammates, it was a memorable sendoff that sparked a colorful, unimpressed response from 76ers center Dwight Howard.
“I wanted to go and Stone Cold Stunner him,” Howard said, evoking memories of the inimitable Steve Austin. “But I had already got one [technical foul].”
In isolation, none of the above items means much apart from paraphernalia, but you don’t have to go any further than Antetokounmpo’s social media or a discussion with his Milwaukee Bucks colleagues or a glance at his body language during games to see a different aura about the two-time reigning MVP these days.
He’s enjoying himself.
And if he feels like sitting on the floor, he’ll sit on the floor, boos from the few fans in attendance notwithstanding.
“That’s what I wanted to do at the time, and that’s what I did,” he said. “I was just trying to have fun. Trying to enjoy the moment.”
He didn’t really need to explain. The court-sitting celebration merely showed where he is mentally at this point of this campaign: cheeky, playful and mostly unconcerned with what others think or expect of him.
When you combine that mindset with extraordinary ability and a fine team around him, it could spell danger for the rest of the field.
The past two years, Antetokounmpo has felt burdened by the expectation of the postseason, coming off two regular-season campaigns of 56-17 and 60-22, plus the individual accolades. Playoff disappointment ensued, first with a collapse following a 2-0 lead on the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and then with a substandard elimination against the Miami Heat in the bubble.
This time, if anything, he and the Bucks are under the radar following a less than perfect start and a tough stretch through the midpoint of February – and with the Brooklyn Nets vacuuming most of the conference attention.
Now, Milwaukee (26-14) is just 1.5 games out of the lead in the East and has won 10 of its past 11. According to FOX Bet, the Bucks are listed at +900 to win the title.
“I’ve done a better job this year … not letting my mind explore as much and start thinking about playoffs, outcome, championship, no championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “This is a stressful job that we’re doing. You’re going to stress yourself out.”
We get it. Antetokounmpo is happy. With a new contract in the bag and his future pledged to Milwaukee, he’s determined to make it a joyous experience.
Watch out. Because the paradox is that the cheery, smiley, good-natured version of Antetokounmpo seems to translate into nothing but ferocity and hesitation-free relentlessness on the court.
As with the teddy, first impressions can be deceiving.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.
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