Thunder Update. So the Thunder have lost two straight, and that's a big freakin' deal for them. A loss tonight would give them their first three-game losing streak in 11 months. In their previous two games (a 101-112 loss to Utah and an 88-101 loss to Denver), the Thunder shot a combined 37.4% from the field and 20.7% from three. Offensive efficiency has never been much of a problem for OKC, so even a two-game skid makes everybody go crazy. Meanwhile, the Bucks scored 72 points last night. Relativity, y'all.
The Thunder once again find themselves without the services of point guard Russell Westbrook, who is expected to be out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery late last December. While Kevin Durant still has 78 total points during OKC's slide, they've had trouble establishing a consistent second or third scorer. Westbrook himself isn't particularly efficient (51.8 TS% this season), but he's one of the most effective shot creators in the NBA. The pressure he puts on opposing defenses helps teammates find open shots with relative ease, opening up the court for the Thunder's dangerous jump-shooters and slashers. Reggie Jackson has filled in admirably (16.9 PER), but obviously the lineup just isn't as dangerous without Westbrook.
Ersanity Watch. It's been a tough season for Ersan Ilyasova, who continues to deal with lingering ankle issues and his annual crisis of confidence. But he's been playing a bit better lately, averaging 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game over his last five while shooting 47.5% from the floor. The rebounding and three-point shooting still aren't close to the levels that have made him such a valuable player over the last two years, but his track record of shaking off slow starts gives hope that better days might lie ahead.
That raises other questions, with even greater long-term implications. When he's playing well, Ersan remains one of the most effective stretch-4s in the NBA, a weapon nearly every team in the NBA would love to have at its disposal. But what's his value to the Bucks, who are ill-equipped to take advantage of any floor spacing he provides and too far from contention for it to matter? As far as Milwaukee is concerned, Ersan's trade value might be of greater importance than his shooting percentage or plus/minus (all of which are obviously intertwined). Getting Ilyasova back on track comes first, and he's likely to struggle as long as Milwaukee's offense remains a disjointed mess of long-range jumpers. But if history repeats itself and Ersan finds his stroke, the Bucks could have an enticing trade chip to dangle out on the market when the trade deadline rolls around.
The Usual Questions. What's a Bucks game without touch-and-go injuries and a tenuous starting lineup? Two comments from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Charles Gardner could be relevant for tonight's game:
John Henson is out tonight but will travel with team to Oklahoma and has a chance to play Saturday night vs. Thunder, coach Drew said.— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) January 11, 2014
Bucks coach Larry Drew says he is thinking of returning Khris Middleton to starting lineup. But will be off bench vs. Bulls.— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) January 11, 2014
Henson is still recovering from an ankle injury that has forced him to miss the Bucks' last 6 games, but you'll find few fans complaining about a cautious approach with Milwaukee's young big man. Getting him back on the court would hopefully kick off an extended run with copious minutes next to Larry Sanders, something everyone is anxious to see. Avoiding any long-term problems with Henson's ankle must be the top priority, though. Bucks.com's Gameday preview lists Henson as out, for what it's worth.
As for Middleton's return to the starting lineup, well duuuuh! The sudden reduction in playing time for Middleton never made much sense, not when Khris was averaging a 21.0/7.0/3.5 line with over 50% shooting in the four games before getting bumped to the bench. He didn't completely disappear from the rotation and he's played about 30 minutes in each of Milwaukee's last two games, but his role in the offense has been drastically reduced compared to when he was starting. We can debate Middleton's place in the "core" of the Bucks' roster all we want (and we have!), but he has undoubtedly been one of the team's most effective players this season. Starting him again might be more symbolic than anything else, but it'd be well deserved and is probably overdue.
UPDATE: Middleton will indeed start and defend initially match up with Durant.
Giannis and What Might Be? In his recent appearance on ESPN's TrueHoop TV (watch it right now if you haven't already), Giannis Antetokounmpo described the exhilarating feeling of facing one of his idols, Kevin Durant, for the first time back in November. Durant has been brought up on occasional as a comp for Giannis' game, and while that's little more than a dream right now, the rookie has clearly tried to model his playing style in part off OKC's superstar.
Comparing Durant's rookie season to what Giannis has done so far might be a stretch, but there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn. Consider this breakdown of each guy's advanced metrics, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com:
Giannis has actually outpaced Durant's scoring efficiency, mostly due to his obscenely high 47.6 free-throw rate. The two most notable differences come in turnover and usage rate. Durant's TS% was far from spectacular in his first season, but he did it while using more than a quarter of his team's possessions while on the floor. His 28.1 USG% as a rookie would be the 9th-highest in the NBA this season, and he still committed turnovers on less than 13% of his possessions. Giannis, meanwhile, is 12th on his own team in both usage and turnover rate.
This isn't to diminish the many sensational plays we've seen from Giannis, many of which we don't typically expect to see from even the biggest stars in the game. But his role is still very, very small. Hopefully that changes soon. Giannis' ability to maintain his current scoring efficiency and cut his turnovers while simultaneously expanding his role on offense will be critical to his development. The good news is that Giannis already seems to boast a more well-rounded game than Durant did at the same age (and with far more high-level competition under his belt), but he's not on the same level as a offensive focal point.