Giannis Antetokounmpo sent a message at the start of the Bucks’ showdown against the Lakers on Thursday. He posted up and buried Anthony Davis under the rim on the very first possession for an and-1, essentially telling the four-time All-Defensive team selection that he was too small to stop him:
But what makes the matchup between the 7-footers so compelling is that Davis went right back at him. While he’s not as strong as the back-to-back MVP, he’s a more fluid scorer with better touch:
Giannis has always been compared to LeBron James, a four-time MVP who finished second to the Bucks star in last year’s voting, but Davis is his more natural rival. Both are just now entering their prime. Giannis is 26 and Davis is 27. They will be competing for awards and championships for the next half-decade. The only other player at their size who’s in the same conversation in terms of two-way ability is Joel Embiid. Giannis is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and averaging 27.0 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting. Davis is the early front-runner for DPOY this season and averages 21.1 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting.
They played to a relative draw on Thursday, although the Lakers won 113-106 thanks to LeBron’s season-high 34 points. Giannis had 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting, 12 rebounds, and three assists (along with a career-high nine turnovers), while Davis had 18 points on 8-of-18 shooting, nine rebounds, and six assists. But more important were the differences in how each team used its star big man on both ends of the floor. The Bucks could learn a lot from the NBA’s reigning champions. If Milwaukee wants to get over the hump and reach the Finals, it needs to go back to the drawing board with Giannis. How the Lakers use Davis is a good place to start.
The Lakers big man doesn’t shoot from the perimeter as much as Giannis, even though he’s a much better shooter. The differences in their career numbers from 3 (AD is at 32.0 percent on 1.5 attempts per game, Giannis is at 28.6 percent on 2.1 attempts) and the free throw line (AD is 80.1 percent on 7.1 attempts, Giannis is 71.7 percent on 6.7 attempts) understates the gap because Giannis has been in a nosedive from the charity stripe over the past two seasons. He has gone from 72.9 percent to 63.3 and now 58.3 this season. The ability to make open standstill shots 15 feet from the basket is a leading indicator of shooting ability. A player who can’t consistently make free throws will have a hard time making 3s. Yet Giannis is taking more 3s than ever.
Defenses will happily let him shoot from the perimeter. But there’s no reason for Giannis to settle for jumpers. He should be putting pressure on the rim constantly. He was 8-for-9 at the rim on Thursday against the NBA’s no. 1 defense and just 3-for-8 outside of the paint. Giannis should take these types of contested jumpers out of his game:
The area of the floor that Giannis should be working on is the mid-post and between 3 and 10 feet from the basket. He needs a counter for when defenses prevent him from getting to the front of the rim, but that counter shouldn’t be hurling misguided 3s. It’s like using a medieval catapult to launch stones over a wall and expecting it to have the accuracy of a cruise missile. Giannis needs to develop the floater and midrange game that Davis has mastered:
To be sure, these shots are harder than they appear. They require timing and the ability to go up with balance that Giannis doesn’t always have. But that argument goes out the window when the Bucks are already giving him the green light to launch 30-footers off the dribble while under pressure.
Giannis should be building his game from the inside-out, not the outside-in. Shots at the rim and the 3-point line are the most efficient, but you can’t skip steps along the way when working on your jumper. The 3-pointer is the dessert. They should be the reward for a big man who has put in the work closer to the basket. Midrange shots are like eating your vegetables. They’re not as glamorous or as fun, but they are more important.
For Giannis, having those moves in his bag would force defenses to change how they guard him. One of the reasons that Antetokounmpo totaled nine turnovers and six fouls against the Lakers is that they knew he wanted to bulldoze anyone in his way. They played him for the charge over and over again. That strategy doesn’t work against Davis because he can drive with more finesse, knowing that he can stop short and shoot over a defender who’s getting ready to fall down.
The Lakers don’t need Davis to be a prolific 3-point shooter. He’s taking fewer (2.6 per game) than he did last season because he’s starting next to a stretch 5 (Marc Gasol) instead of a rim runner (JaVale McGee). His job is to dominate the paint and kick the ball out to shooters. The Lakers distribute roles better than the Bucks. Look at the differences in the types of shots that Giannis and AD take:
Giannis vs. AD Shot Attempts
|Type of Shot||Giannis||Davis|
|Type of Shot||Giannis||Davis|
|3 to 10 feet||18-for-42 (42.9%)||29-for-44 (65.9%)|
|Long 2s||12-for-39 (30.8%)||33-for-84 (39.2%)|
|3s||21-for-68 (30.9%)||13-for-37 (35.1%)|
Davis and Giannis are two of the most versatile 7-footers in NBA history. The problem is that flexibility can be a gift and a curse if you don’t know which areas to emphasize. Milwaukee allows Giannis to be too versatile on offense and not enough on defense. The team is starting to figure out the former by running more offense on the perimeter through Khris Middleton in crunch time. But it doesn’t appear any closer to seeing the light on the latter.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer still doesn’t understand what he has in Giannis. Davis is the only other player in the league who can do as many things as him on defense, and guard as many types of players. The difference is that Lakers coach Frank Vogel takes advantage of his star 7-footer, especially in the playoffs.
Their respective series against the Heat last postseason were telling. Giannis barely guarded Jimmy Butler while Davis spent most of his minutes on him. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Giannis was the primary defender on Butler for 9.9 possessions compared to 80.0 for Davis. He spent most of their second-round series instead guarding Jae Crowder at the 3-point line and watching Butler light up less capable defenders. He might as well not have been on the floor. The same thing happened when the Bucks faced Kawhi Leonard in 2019. Budenholzer is reactive in the sense that he throws his hands up and hopes that Giannis has a good matchup on defense. Vogel proactively seeks out the best one for Davis.
Like the Bucks, the Lakers lost Game 1 of their second-round series. But Vogel identified the right adjustment against the Rockets, benching McGee and Dwight Howard, playing Davis at the 5, and then using him as a free safety on Russell Westbrook. Those moves reversed momentum and ended the series before it ever got interesting.
Budenholzer has never been as comfortable downsizing. Davis has played more than twice as many minutes at the 5 this season (47) as Giannis (19). The play below, from crunch time on Thursday, shows why that is so important. The Lakers moved Davis to the 5, which put Brook Lopez on him. Lopez then switched AD’s screen on LeBron, who ultimately buried a 3 in his face. Lopez did about as well as could be expected on the play. The problem is that your team should have higher expectations when it has Giannis, who was standing in the corner guarding Alex Caruso:
Milwaukee should be doing everything in its power to keep Antetokounmpo involved in the main actions on defense. Instead, it’s disarming him before the game even starts. That’s what happened in the Bucks’ loss to the Nets on Monday. Giannis spent most of the game on Jeff Green (34.0 possessions) and DeAndre Jordan (6.3). He barely guarded James Harden (2.0) or Kevin Durant (1.9). Would they be using him any differently if he were a glacially slow big man whom they were trying to hide as much as possible?
Comparing AD and Giannis is difficult because the former plays with LeBron James. It’s not like he had much success as the primary option in New Orleans. But while LeBron is still the MVP of the Lakers, Davis was their biggest matchup weapon in the playoffs. They adjusted their lineups to emphasize him on offense and moved him all over the floor on defense. Los Angeles beat Miami because it used Davis as a small-ball 5 who guarded Butler. Giannis could do the same thing. He might be the only player in the league who can challenge Davis on both ends of the floor. This should be one of the defining individual rivalries of the 2020s. But Giannis may never face Davis in the NBA Finals unless the Bucks learn how to use him.