Kawhi Leonard versus Giannis Antetokounmpo was supposed to be the headliner coming into Tuesday’s matchup between the Bucks and the Spurs. Giannis has been this season’s breakout star, racking up jaw-dropping stat lines and must-see GIFs on a nightly basis, and if any player in the league could slow him down, it would be the Spurs’ two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. Unfortunately, Antetokounmpo has been slowed with an illness this week, missing the Bucks’ loss to the Wizards on Sunday and playing only nine minutes in the first half against the Spurs before sitting out the rest of the game.
Few would have given the Bucks a chance without their rising young superstar, but they wound up stunning the Spurs 109–107, breaking San Antonio’s nine-game home winning streak. As it turns out, there’s more to Milwaukee than just Giannis. Tuesday night was a great showcase for his supporting cast, as they absolutely lit up the no. 1-rated defense in the NBA, shooting 52.4 percent from the field, and 52.6 percent from behind the arc. The game was a thrilling back-and-forth affair, featuring a fascinating chess match between Jason Kidd and Gregg Popovich.
Giannis wasn’t the only star sidelined; LaMarcus Aldridge missed the game due to a stomach illness, so both teams’ rotations were thrown out of whack, with several end-of-the-bench players thrust into much bigger roles. The result: impromptu, off-the-cuff basketball, with both coaches throwing things against the wall and seeing what stuck. There was a lot to digest from this game, particularly from the perspective of the Bucks, who pulled off their most impressive win of the season. Here are five takeaways.
1. Michael Beasley Is Back
Back might not be the right word, because it would imply that he had established himself in the league in the first place. However, at the age of 28, and now on his fifth team, the former no. 2 overall pick finally seems to have found himself. He almost single-handedly carried the Bucks in the final two frames, playing all but seven seconds of the last 24 minutes of the game, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks on 11-for-18 shooting. He was a game-high plus-18 in 34 minutes, and more than picked up the slack for Giannis.
Beasley was unstoppable as the screener on the pick-and-roll, where he repeatedly took the ball right to the front of the rim against a smaller Spurs defender. Kidd ran the offense through Beasley in the fourth quarter, calling for the same play over and over again with rookie Malcolm Brogdon as the setup man. It looked a lot like the two-man game he used to run as a player with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, which ended with a guard switched onto Dirk at the free throw line. The big difference for Beasley in this game was that he wasn’t settling for long 2s, which has long been a crutch for him. His shot chart is a model of efficiency, with only a handful of attempts outside of the paint:
We always knew Beasley could get buckets. What has changed in Milwaukee is his emergence as a more complete player. He was competing on defense for most of the game, and made several nice plays as a help-side defender, reading the Spurs offense and stepping across the lane for a steal or rotating over for a block. This would be an impressive block for most players, but it’s near miraculous considering his reputation:
Beasley is averaging only 16.3 minutes per game this season, so his per-game numbers don’t stand out, but his per-36 minute numbers are eye-popping — 19.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks on 52 percent shooting. Most importantly, they aren’t the type of empty statistics he was known for early in his career. The Bucks have a net rating of plus-3.3 when he is on the floor, and he’s become an integral part of a second unit that has been killing opposing teams. Check out this drive-and-kick he makes late in the game to set up a Brogdon 3. This is not the old Michael Beasley we have come to know and love:
The Bucks acquired Beasley before the start of the season from the Rockets for Tyler Ennis (a third-year guard who was not part of their long-term plans) and it’s looking like a massive heist. Turning Beasley into a legitimate NBA player is quite the feather in Kidd’s cap.
2. Jabari Parker Was Pretty Great As Well
Overshadowed by Beasley’s breakout performance was another strong game for Parker, who is really coming into his own in his third season in the NBA. Parker was the focal point in the Bucks offense during the first half before the Beasley takeover in the second, and he had an efficient 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, along with seven rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Parker is becoming an offensive machine, and the one-two punch of him and Giannis is one of the toughest forward combinations in the league to defend.
This game was the perfect example. Kawhi started the game on Giannis, which forced David Lee (who was starting in place of Aldridge) to guard Parker. With all the attention that Antetokounmpo demands on a nightly basis, Parker gets matched up with the weaker defender in the opposing frontcourt every game, and he’s too talented to have guys like Lee on him for any amount of time. Shots like these are just too easy:
Jabari scored in a number of ways on Tuesday. With Kawhi guarding him for huge stretches of the game, he didn’t force things too much, getting a lot of offense in transition, either spotting up from 3 or taking the ball up the court himself. He was deadly as a scorer in the pick-and-roll, and he knows how to use his size (6-foot-8 and 250 pounds) to exploit a mismatch. It’s clear why the Carmelo Anthony comparisons come up so frequently: Jabari is a perimeter scorer who can also play bullyball. His ability to post up is a great weapon in the two-man game with Giannis, because it makes switching the screen very risky:
3. Kawhi Leonard, Master of Everything
Bucks-Spurs may have been fun, but it was still disappointing not to see more of the Kawhi vs. Giannis matchup on both sides of the ball. Giannis plays almost entirely on instinct; he’s a wild mustang still learning to be bridled. He leaps and bounds over the court in one or two steps, and it’s never quite clear what he’s going to do until he does it. Kawhi never makes anything up; he makes the fundamentally sound play every single time down the court. He’s perfectly in control, and he rarely makes mistakes or mental errors. It’s the difference between a genius born with a gift, and someone who painstakingly drilled genius into himself over years of meticulous work. Giannis is Mozart, and Kawhi is Salieri, except if Salieri were every bit as good a composer.
With Giannis hobbled, Leonard did whatever he wanted on Tuesday. He finished with 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting, along with seven rebounds, two assists, three steals, and three blocks, and he was abusing whatever defender the Bucks put on him. Parker had absolutely no chance of guarding him, and Leonard drew three different shooting fouls on him. The Spurs’ biggest problem on Tuesday was they couldn’t clone Leonard — there were too many Bucks players going off on offense for him to guard all of them.
4. It Was a Battle of Contrasting Second Units
This game featured a matchup of two of the best second units in the league. For both the Spurs and Bucks, their individual net rating leaders actually come off the bench. Most teams are trying to buy time with the second unit; the Bucks and Spurs are winning games with theirs, albeit in two completely different ways.
The Spurs’ second unit is a textbook spread pick-and-roll outfit. They have a rim-rolling 5 (Dewayne Dedmon), a stretch 4 (Davis Bertans), a 3-and-D wing (Jonathon Simmons), a playmaking 2 (Manu Ginobili), and a volume 3-point shooter at the 1 (Patty Mills). Everyone has a role, and they all play their roles perfectly. They run beautiful offense, using an initial pick-and-roll action to create a crack in the defense and then moving the ball until it results in either a dunk or an open 3. The Bucks play very aggressive pick-and-roll defense, doubling the ball handler and counting on the length and athleticism of their other three players to rotate to shooters. The last team to use this strategy really effectively were the Big Three Miami Heat, and there were plays Tuesday night that looked a lot like the 2014 NBA Finals, with the Spurs masterfully moving the ball in the half court to pick apart a scrambling defense:
The Bucks, on the other hand, play old-school, inside-outside basketball, running their second unit through Greg Monroe in the post. After a disappointing debut in Milwaukee last season, Monroe has thrived in his new reserve role. Watch what he does to poor Davis Bertans, the Spurs’ impressive rookie from Latvia, in this sequence:
With both second units ill-suited to defend the other, the difference came down to execution. The Bucks bench units had their moments, but the Spurs won the battle of the reserves in one stretch in the first half, when Kawhi plus four reserves went plus-11 in only three minutes. That might have been where the Bucks missed a healthy Giannis the most, as he’s usually the one who anchors lineups with four reserves.
5. Davis Bertans Is Going to Be a Monster
The Spurs have done it again. Remember this name because you are going to hear a lot more about him in the near future. With so many talented players in front of him, Bertans hasn’t played much this season, but he’s going to force his way into the rotation if he keeps up what he has been doing in the past two games. He had 21 points in 18 minutes against the Hornets on Saturday, and 11 points in 19 minutes against the Bucks, leading the Spurs in plus-minus in both games.
The Spurs acquired Bertans all the way back in 2011; he was a second-round pick of the Pacers whom they threw in as part of the trade for George Hill that also netted the Spurs Kawhi Leonard. He was only 19 when he was drafted, and his stay overseas was even longer than the Spurs anticipated because he tore his ACL twice. Now, as a 24-year-old rookie, he’s ready to contribute.
At 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Bertans is a pure shooter with a quick release, and he’s really dangerous in the Spurs offense because he can shoot over the top of most defenders when they close out on him, even when he doesn’t have a lot of space:
However, he’s much more than a shooting specialist. How many stretch 4s can do stuff like this?
How well Bertans attacks closeouts might be the most impressive thing about his game. He puts the ball on the floor and is very aggressive going to the basket, and he has the vision and the basketball IQ to make a lot of passes on the move.
The biggest problem for Bertans at the moment is his lack of functional strength, and he can be bullied in the paint. He had only one rebound in 37 minutes against the Bucks and Hornets. However, he’s long and active enough to potentially contribute as a shot-blocker and a perimeter defender. Bertans has a lot of interesting tools, and he has a chance to be a very good player in the NBA. Just check out this pregame quote from Pop:
“He’s a very good basketball player. He’s somebody that’s got a really bright future, and just needs minutes and experience. He plays an all-around game; blocks shots, works hard defensively. But his skill as a shooter is pretty unique. He’s got great range, and he can put it down on the floor. He can pass the basketball. I think he’s a really well-rounded player who’s gonna have a great future.”
Here’s how you know Pop isn’t blowing smoke. He ran a play for Bertans down two points with 15 seconds left in the game. The shot didn’t go in, but to show that type of confidence in such an inexperienced young player says it all. The Spurs have already unearthed one talented young big man this season in Dedmon. It looks like they now have two.