Giannis Antetokounmpo learned a painful lesson in last season’s playoffs. For as great as he was during the regular season, the reigning MVP wasn’t the best player in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks blew a 2-0 lead to the Raptors, as Kawhi Leonard outplayed Giannis on both ends of the floor and sent him home. Antetokounmpo has responded by coming back even better this season, adding new elements to his game that could ultimately help him win his first NBA title.
Through the first quarter of the season, Giannis is more dominant than ever. The departure of Malcolm Brogdon has given him an even bigger role on offense, and he’s averaging career highs in points (30.9) and rebounds (13.2) to go with 5.5 assists per game. He’s the first player to reach those numbers since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.
The Bucks, who are tied with the Lakers for the NBA’s best record (21-3) and are more than three points ahead of them in net rating (plus-12.7), are essentially playing a different sport than everyone else. Their players seem more comfortable in their second year under coach Mike Budenholzer. They know their roles in his system and how to play off of Giannis, spreading the floor on offense and shuttling penetration to him on defense. The percentages are always in their favor, almost regardless of how well they are playing. They create more high-percentage shots than their opponents. The math does the rest.
But the equation changes for Giannis and Milwaukee in the latter stages of the playoffs. Look at his shot chart compared with Kawhi’s in last year’s East finals:
Kawhi vs. Giannis Shot Chart, Eastern Conference Final
|FGAs by distance||Kawhi||Giannis|
|FGAs by distance||Kawhi||Giannis|
Giannis had a far more efficient shot distribution. He took almost twice as many shots at the rim and more than three times fewer attempts in the long 2-point range. Kawhi would have been drawing dead over the course of a season, with no way to make up the difference in expected value.
So how did he pull it off in the playoffs? The first step was on defense. Kawhi began guarding Giannis after the Raptors fell behind in the series, doing everything in his power to push his rival out of the paint. Giannis still created high-percentage shots at the rim, but not as many as he had with Pascal Siakam defending him in the first two games. And because he didn’t have the same comfort level shooting from the perimeter, he gave up the ball and let someone else shoot.
The problem last postseason was that the Bucks didn’t have better options. The Raptors were an elite defensive team that made life difficult for Milwaukee’s supporting cast. Those players counted on Giannis to score at will inside and kick the ball out to them for open 3s. There was no Plan B.
The second step for Kawhi’s takeover was on offense. Milwaukee’s defense is built around running opposing players off the 3-point line and forcing them to drive into the outstretched arms of Brook Lopez and Giannis at the rim. The one shot they will live with is the long 2, the least efficient shot in basketball. But that was exactly the shot that Kawhi wanted to take.
He was playing at a superhuman level in the playoffs. It didn’t matter where he was shooting once he got going on offense. Kawhi shot 17-for-33 (51.5 percent) between 15 and 24 feet against the Bucks. The long 2 might as well have been a layup for him.
But the most important thing was that Kawhi was shooting in the first place. The defense often takes away opposing role players in the latter portion of a series. Their legs get tighter, while weaker defenders who give up more open looks are taken out of the rotation. At that point, there’s huge value in having a star who can create his own shot, even if it’s not the most efficient look. Giannis (48.1) was right behind Kawhi (48.4) in effective field goal percentage in that series. The difference was that Kawhi took 24 more shots.
Giannis still doesn’t shoot as well as Kawhi, but he has made a point to shoot more this season. He has gone from shooting 2.8 3s per game last season to 5.0 this season, while bumping his percentages more than six points, from 25.6 to 31.9. The pull-up jumper is now a consistent part of his game. Giannis has taken at least two 3s in every game this season, and has had three contests with eight. He’s no longer shooting with any hesitation:
Giannis still isn’t shooting 3s at a particularly high percentage, although he is a few points higher than Brook Lopez (29.4). The difference, of course, is that defenses want Giannis to shoot while they try to run Lopez off the line.
The numbers say to leave Giannis open from deep. It’s not the most efficient shot that he can take in the regular season, because most NBA defenses can’t stop him from getting to the rim. But he will eventually face an elite defense in the playoffs that can limit how many attempts he can get from the most efficient areas of the floor. At that point, he will have to make up for what he loses in quality with quantity.
The other half of that equation is reducing the number of attempts the other team’s star takes in a game. One of the hidden story lines in last year’s ECF was that the Bucks never gave Giannis the chance to guard Kawhi, meaning the battle was staged on only one side of the ball. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Kawhi was the primary defender on Giannis for 99.8 possessions in the series, compared with only 27.3 with Giannis on Kawhi. Instead, Giannis spent most of his time defending Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol, watching helplessly while Kawhi put on a shooting exhibition from the midrange.
Milwaukee tried something new in the only meeting between the two players this season, a 119-91 home demolition of the Clippers on Friday. Kawhi sat out the first game between the teams in November, which means Giannis won’t face him again unless they meet in the NBA Finals. One of the most fascinating stretches of Friday’s game came in the middle of the third quarter, when Giannis was the primary defender on Kawhi for seven possessions.
It’s hard to draw conclusions from such a small sample size. Kawhi went 1-for-3 from the floor and drew one shooting foul. He beat Giannis off the dribble once, but couldn’t shake loose otherwise:
Budenholzer hasn’t used Giannis as a perimeter stopper much this season. His most frequent defensive assignments have all been against power forwards like Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love, and Markieff Morris. But it’s something that Budenholzer may be keeping in his back pocket for the playoffs. The possibilities go beyond Kawhi and other elite wings. Giannis has the physical tools to guard every player in the NBA. He’s averaging 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game this season, and is in the 95th percentile of defenders leaguewide when contesting shots.
The concern for the Bucks is the one foul that Kawhi drew on Friday with Giannis on him. Giannis couldn’t get around a ball screen set by Ivica Zubac, which created a brief opening for Kawhi to play one-on-one against Lopez, a matchup that killed the Bucks in the East finals.
It didn’t matter what Lopez tried once Kawhi got him in the pick-and-roll. He didn’t have the speed to extend out on the perimeter and he couldn’t stay back and let Kawhi bury open jumpers:
Budenholzer never found an answer. He didn’t have any mobile big men that he trusted. He started Lopez at center and played Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic behind him, burying D.J. Wilson, his most athletic player at the position, on the bench.
The big knock on Budenholzer, going back to his days in Atlanta, has been that he doesn’t make many adjustments over the course of a series. Three of his past four defeats in the playoffs have come with his team losing four straight games. He lost to LeBron James and Kawhi in those series, but losing so many games in a row is an indication that he’s not countering what his opponent is doing, even if his teams were ultimately overmatched.
The loss to the Raptors was the perfect example. Kawhi was scorching his defense and Budenholzer never used his best defender (Giannis) to slow down the Toronto star. It didn’t have to be putting Giannis on the ball. He could also have downsized and moved Giannis to the 5, eliminating the easiest source of offense for Kawhi in the series—running pick-and-rolls against slower centers. Giannis played only one minute without a traditional big man next to him in the East finals.
Maybe the most important change for the Bucks this season is that Budenholzer has finally gone to those lineups. Giannis has played 80 minutes at the 5 this season, and the Bucks have a net rating of plus-33.8 during those stretches.
He’s more than capable of handling the position. Giannis is no longer the scrawny teenager he was when he came into the league seven years ago. At 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s bigger than a lot of centers these days. There are two clear advantages to playing Giannis at the 5: It allows the Bucks to be more aggressive when defending the pick-and-roll and it creates room to play another perimeter player on offense.
But the biggest benefit is what it does to the other team. The Clippers didn’t use the pick-and-roll between Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams at all when Giannis was at the 5 in the fourth quarter. There was no point in running a play that would end with Giannis on Williams. He shut down one of the most dangerous plays in the NBA just by changing positions.
The Bucks can rely on Giannis and play an überefficient style of basketball on both ends of the floor in the regular season. But they have to be far more proactive in the playoffs. Giannis was already the MVP, but Budenholzer is doing a better job of taking advantage of his versatility this season. He’s a complete player who can play all five positions on offense and defense and put his stamp on every facet of the game. It doesn’t matter who the Bucks face in the playoffs, or what type of challenges they pose. Budenholzer can use his superstar to put out any fire.
The role model for Giannis isn’t the player who defeated him in last year’s East finals. It’s LeBron James. The reason LeBron went to eight straight NBA Finals on two different teams is that he was the ultimate matchup weapon. He could change his role over the course of a series to defend where the opponent was attacking and attack the opponent at their weakest point. Giannis became a more versatile player in the offseason so that he could be a similar type of problem solver in the playoffs. The only limit on what he can do might be Budenholzer’s imagination.