A lesson in humility

Jul 2021

Before game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, the 26 year-old Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo gave a very reflective and insightful response to a question about his work ethics.

Paraphrased below, but highly recommend watching the entire video

“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego. When you focus on the future, that’s your pride. When you focus on the present, that’s your humility.” – Antetokounmpo

It’s one thing to talk the talk, but in the last 40 seconds of game 5, Antetokounmpo and his teammate Jrue Holiday both walked the walk. They demonstrated remarkable humility in the face of surmounting pressure. These 40 seconds will most likely go down in the books as some of the greatest plays in NBA Finals history.

In game 5, Bucks and Suns are tied 2-2. Whoever emerges as the winner from this game will gain significant tailwind heading into game 6 (the team that reaches 4 wins will receive the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy).

With 37.9 seconds remaining and the scores at 120-119 in favor of the Bucks, every second counts. Here’s the highlights if you want to have a visual follow-along (start from 8:26).

37.3s – Holiday gets possession of the ball with 3 seconds remaining on the shot clock. He attempts to shoot for 2 points.

He misses.

Devin Booker of the Suns gets possession of the ball. Now they have an opportunity to score and take the critical lead in this game.

30s – Booker drives the ball into the three second area, hoping to shoot for 2. He is undeniably the star shooting guard of the Suns, and the team seems to think so too; the Suns did not call a timeout, instead betting on Booker to take the ball and secure a shot.

Booker seems intent on making the shot despite multiple players running up to block him. Amidst this chaos, he doesn’t seem to notice Holiday standing behind him…

19.6s – Holiday successfully snatches the ball from Booker and dashes down the court. He has the lead.

15.5s – With only one player between him and the net, Holiday has a choice: he could try to score himself, making up for the miss earlier. If he lets his ego and pride make the decision, that was most likely the action he would have taken.

But Holiday didn’t do that.

Instead, he sees from the corner of his eye Antetokounmpo, sprinting towards the net — it takes the 6'11’’ player only around twelve steps to cross the length of the court — hands up, gesturing for Holiday. An ally-oop opportunity materializes.

14.9s – Holiday tosses the ball towards the net.

Antetokounmpo jumps. The Suns try to stop him, but it’s too late. This is a ball only he can reach. He catches the ball in mid-air, slam dunks it before landing with a staredown into the camera.

Bucks now lead 122-119. Antetokounmpo was fouled, so he now also has an opportunity to add another point for the Bucks from the free throw line.

13.5s – Antetokounmpo shoots. He misses. He has now missed three consecutive free throws. He catches the rebound, and just like Holiday, he is also faced with a choice: he could have kept possession and attempted to free throw again after another foul. If he scores, he could prove his worth to his teammates, his coach, and the fans. If he let his ego and pride make the decision, that was most likely the action he would have taken.

But Antetokounmpo didn’t do that.

Instead, he lobes the ball behind him to his teammate, shooting guard Khris Middleton. Middleton is fouled, and has a free throw attempt.

Why did he do that?

Antetokounmpo has a free throw percentage of 0.717. Middleton’s is 0.879.

Antetokounmpo knew from the data that Middleton had a higher chance of scoring, and he made this decision by letting humility take over. He is successful when the team is successful, not the other way around. By passing to Middleton, he made a strategic, data-driven decision under the stress and pressure. This was an incredibly selfless move from a star player.

9.8s – Middleton shoots his free throw.

He scores.

With only a few seconds remaining, the Suns’ efforts to catch up were futile. Bucks win the game 123-119, taking the 3-2 lead into game 6.

Shreyas Doshi’s observation from Antetokounmpo’s interview is worth considering: “techniques make you good, mindset makes you world-class.”

Both Holiday and Antetokounmpo played with humility, not ego or pride. Their mindset allowed them to win this game, and eventually game 6 as well. The Milwaukee Bucks are now NBA champions for the first time in 50 years.