MIAMI, March 4 (UPI) -- Everyone sees Giannis Antetokounmpo as a competitor as he dominates the NBA, but his teammates say the 6-foot-11 superstar's sense of humor has been vital in leading the first-place Milwaukee Bucks.
Antetokounmpo tied a season-low with 13 points in a loss to the Miami Heat on Monday in Miami. Setbacks have been rare this season for the 52-9 Bucks. While many road teams share somber locker rooms after losing, Bucks players bragged about their video game prowess and looked ahead to their next game.
"We haven't lost a lot this year," Antetokounmpo said. "I don't remember how I handled us losing [in 2019], but my teammates are looking at me. I have to keep my confidence high."
Antetokounmpo is having a better season than his 2018-2019 MVP campaign. The Bucks star is averaging career-highs in points (29.6) and rebounds (13.8) per game this season.
Foes frantically change their game plans when they play the Bucks, trying to find ways to limit Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star has made that task tougher by improving his jump shot over the last few seasons. He isn't just a dunker. He's a facilitator, a tough defender and a force in transition, with his full-court sprints often resulting in rim-rocking finishes.
Antetokounmpo frequently is featured in top-play segments on TV sports networks and social media, but teammates and coach Mike Budenholzer mostly see a different 25-year-old than the rest of the world.
"I think [the Bucks see] his leadership and the type of teammate he is," Budenholzer said. "Those are things that usually are just in the locker room or on the team plane or bus.
"We see his sense of humor, but he has a laser-like focus when it's time to compete and play. His teammates and coaches appreciate coming to work with him every day and working hard, but also finding some lightness and enjoying ourselves while we try to improve."
Fans have gotten a glimpse of Antetokounmpo's jovial nature this season when the "Greek Freak" pretended to be a professional wrestler. Antetokounmpo throws and receives fake punches and kicks with his teammates outside locker rooms around the league before taking the court.
On Monday, that tradition spilled onto the court of American Airlines Arena, when Bucks center Robin Lopez pinned Heat mascot Burnie to the ground. Lopez held up a wrestling championship belt after the pregame victory.
"Giannis is consistent about who he is everyday," Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. "He is going to compete and off the court he is himself. When it's game time we are all locked in, but he is able to relax.
Knows a leader
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he obviously doesn't spend any time at the Bucks' facilities, but he knows a leader when he sees one. He attributed the Bucks' success to Antetokounmpo's demeanor and growing skill set.
"The fact that they've been able to come back with this kind of edge and have it for so long this season is impressive," Spoelstra said of the Bucks, who won 60 games last year before losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Your leaders have to be echoing the same message as your coach," Spoelstra said.
Antetokounmpo had 279 dunks in 2018-2019, trailing only Rudy Gobert. He averaged 3.8 dunks per game during his MVP campaign, but is averaging 3.0 dunks this season. A career-high 24.6 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks last season. Just 16.5 percent of his shots have been dunks this season.
He is also shooting about two more 3-point shots per game than any other season in his career.
"I don't know how he's attacked this season differently," Budenholzer said. "I do think he's improved. His competitiveness and focus has been off the charts since I've been around him, including last year and the playoffs. That's something that makes him special.
"He's just a better player and I think it's showing."
Antetokounmpo held his smile -- despite the loss -- until the subject turned back to himself Monday night in the back corner of the visitor's locker room. He was asked about his urge to win a second consecutive MVP award.
"Winning MVP is not important at all," Antetokounmpo said. "I really don't care about the award."