Moore: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Decision-Making Limit the Bucks in Game 6?
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo faces the biggest professional moment of his life Thursday.
Let’s be clear, the Milwaukee Bucks’ second-round series against the Nets is winnable. The Bucks have bumbled and stumbled, have collapsed and been blown out, have been out-coached by Steve Nash and outclassed by Kevin Durant … and yet, they find themselves two wins away from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals entering Game 6.
They’re facing a team that they honestly match up well with and have matched up better against as the series goes on Blake Griffin was crucial in the first two games of the series and played just 29 minutes in Game 5.
The Bucks’ Effective Field Goal percentage has improved in every game of this series outside of that miserable rock fight in Game 3.
Brooklyn didn’t make some series-altering adjustment in Game 5. Jeff Green shot the lights out, and Kevin Durant was the best player on the planet, bar none.
On the Bucks’ side, it was decision-making. And even then, there were good decisions mixed with bad ones, and good processes led to bad results.
That wasn’t true of any Bucks player more than Antetokounmpo in Game 5.
The reason that Griffin, who suddenly became an all-world defender for the first two games, has played less and less is that Antetokounmpo has figured out how to attack him.
Giannis puts Griffin and space, and his earlier-series success is gone:
In the last three games, Antetokounmpo has averaged 23 minutes and is shooting 57% with Griffin on-court; the Bucks have a +11.3 Net Rating in those minutes.
So the Nets turned to Green, who certainly won the battle in Game 5 with 27 points on 7-of-8 from 3-point range. However, the defensive success Green had, with Antetokounmpo shooting 3-of-7 with three turnovers, deserves a bit more context.
I’ve long held that Antetokounmpo gets a terrible playoff whistle. He is constantly attacked with multiple defenders making contact, but the officials let it go in the playoffs because of his athleticism and size. The problem is that in the regular season, Antetokounmpo gets an excellent whistle.
It is just as good in the regular season as it is bad in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo drew free throws on 20.9% of his possessions, the fourth-highest mark in the league among players with at least 1000 possessions this season.
In the playoffs? That’s down to just 14.4%. Sure the playoffs are more physical, and there should be fewer whistles, but the gap between the two rates is an issue.
How can the Bucks prepare for a playoff run if the whistle is fundamentally different? If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, here are a few quick ones.
Green pretty clearly gets contact on the arm once you slow it down, even after getting an inside arm on Giannis and playing that physical. It’s not that this is some egregious foul; it’s that it’s such an easy one for a superstar to draw, and yet nothing here.
These plays especially matter because driving against Griffin in space is the best way to attack him, but Green is more nimble.
Antetokounmpo needs to go to the post-game to counter him like he does here:
Here Green gets a miss, but Antetokounmpo got deep position on the drive, got to his move, and laid the ball gently on the rim. That’s just a bad bounce:
Green pretty clearly can’t handle Antetokounmpo’s physicality … without flopping:
Drawing charges on Antetokounmpo is the easiest way to defend him. Just get in the way and fall over.
What’s interesting on this one is you can see Antetokounmpo trip over the help defender’s foot, and yet he picks up the offensive foul:
Again, the benefit of the doubt never seems to go the two-time MVPs ‘ way.
It’s unlikely that his suddenly changes in Game 6. Officials haven’t given him the benefit of the doubt in any playoff run and there is no reason to expect them to start now.
Those are the problems that are out of his control. The bigger issue for Antetokounmpo in this series is his feel for the moment.
At the end of the third quarter, the Bucks ran a pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo as the screener. This is a great alternative to Giannis driving full speed into three defenders, which we’ve seen in the last few years.
However, the Nets have played great defense on it, and you see them pick him up earlier here, with Durant using his length to cover ground and then poke the ball away. Antetokounmpo recovers the ball but has to hoist a fadeaway with 1.7 left on the clock, and any such shot is a Nets win.
Giannis actually hit 3’s in Game 5 after missing them badly in Games 3 and 4.
But then, with the Nets up by three with four minutes to go, he takes this transition 3-pointer:
It’s not that he should never take them — he hit more 3’s vs. Brooklyn (10) than any other team in the regular season.
But at the end of the game, when your lead have evaporated and the game is slipping away, every single possession matters. You cannot gamble on those plays.
With two minutes to go in a tie game, Antetokounmpo gets James Harden on the block. Now, Harden is a tremendous post defender. It’s the strongest part of his defensive game and an environment he relishes.
The way to beat Harden is to catch him napping when he’s not engaged on-ball. Attacking him here is madness. But if you’re going to, you have at least to get a hook shot or something near the rim.
Instead, he settles for a baseline turnaround fadeaway; an iconic Kobe shot and one that Giannis cannot reliably hit.
So we have evidence that Antetokounmpo has figured out this matchup as the series has gone on, but also evidence that he continually gets in his way and that the officials are not going to bail him out despite pretty clear evidence he’s getting hit.
The key to betting Game 6 lies in which version of Antetokounmpo you believe will show up. If you think he is a limited player who doesn’t understand how to manipulate the game, fade Milwaukee. If you believe he’s gotten the best of his matchups and Green is unlikely to repeat his Game 4 success, the Bucks are the play.
This is the most important game of Antetokounmpo’s career so far. It’s hard to find reasons why the bounces will suddenly go his way when they’ve gone against him so often.