The Milwaukee Bucks once again made life hard on themselves in the second half last night in Charlotte -- only this time they managed to reverse their struggles in overtime.
Central to all of the good things Milwaukee did was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who shook off a couple of poor scoring nights against the Hawks by missing just one shot (7/8 fg) en route to 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Interestingly, virtually everything Giannis did well offensively came from variants of the same set -- a catch on the left wing that allowed him to get a foul-line screen from the Bucks' center or simply work his way into the paint on his own. At the start of the season we saw Larry Sanders and Zaza Pachulia spend a lot of time in that spot early in possessions, usually on a quick drop-off from Brandon Knight. But while Sanders and Pachulia typically just looked for a handoff back to a guard or pass to a cutter, Giannis' skillset necessarily enables him to do bigger and better things.
It was that look which helped the Bucks emerge from a 14-6 slumber to start the game, as the Bucks got six points on two possessions from it immediately following a Jason Kidd timeout early in the first quarter. First, Giannis drove right, took a screen from Pachulia, and then kicked back to the left side for a three from Brandon Knight -- who was left wide open by Kemba Walker sagging down to help on Pachulia's roll. Watch the video above or look at the screen cap below: While Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is recovering from a good screen by Zaza, Al Jefferson is forced to step up on Giannis, and Kemba sags down to impede Pachulia. Even Gerald Henderson comes off the weak side wing to make a token attempt to throw off Giannis, meaning you have two Bucks effectively occupying three (or even four) Hornets.
The next possession it was a similar look, only this time Giannis used his long strides to get to the right side of the rim for an and-one finish. Both situations worked to free Giannis from one of the league's better young wing defenders (MKG) and thus giving Giannis three options to choose from: Attack the rim himself, dump it off to Zaza, or punch it back out for Knight. NBA defenses can usually take away two options, but the split second of disorder created by the pick and subsequent help makes it very difficult to cover all three. Once again Pachulia's screen allows Giannis to get the edge on MKG, but this time Jefferson hangs back, leaving Giannis room to explode forward and past him. A subtle difference in spacing is also important here -- because the screen is further from the hoop, Walker doesn't have to overcommit to covering Zaza like he did on the prior play, while Al is less likely to step out given how far he is from Giannis initially. In other words, driving on Al is the obvious play here.
You can see the dilemma this creates for the guy guarding Giannis as well. Because these plays look like a high post catch or possibly the start of a screening action, the defender's first reaction is to pressure him as he's setting up. If he lays off, Giannis can simply get better position and turn it into a post-up or face-up situation closer to the basket. And once Giannis catches, the idea of backing off in order to concede a jump shot requires a quick switch in strategy -- the defender may already have made up his mind to pressure Giannis on the ball, which means he can put the ball on the floor to make a quick move past him or try to back him down if it's a smaller guy.
None of these are necessarily easy for Giannis to do, but his ability to drive and finish to his left or right, paired with his expanding arsenal of spins and counter moves, means that there's really no simple way to stop him outside of throwing multiple bodies his direction (which opens up passing options elsewhere). In single coverage, Giannis can generally turn to get the defender on his back if nothing else, which sets up a short jump hook over his left shoulder -- a dangerous weapon that we've seen with increasing regularity since summer league. Considering Giannis is taller and longer than almost anyone who guards him, it's also a shot that he can get most of the time.
Assuming the Bucks use these sets more often, opponents will naturally make adjustments -- we saw that from Steve Clifford in the second half in fact. On one catch near the left elbow, MKG shaded Giannis to force him left, closing off the P&R action with Pachulia and funneling him to where Jefferson was supposed to provide a second body to seal the drive. You can see what Clifford is trying to do here, and with a more capable defensive big it would probably have more success. But instead Giannis just puts it on the deck and ghosts right past Jefferson for a layup.
We also saw in overtime that Henderson tried to play off him a bit on the first play of overtime, with both Henderson and Cody Zeller subsequently staying under John Henson's screen in order to force a jumper. Normally that works to the defenses's favor -- Giannis has made just 16/55 (29.1%) from mid-range this season -- but this time he calmly pulled up and knocked down a wide open look from just past the foul line. Even if you don't want Giannis settling for many long twos, having the ability to knock down uncontested shots off the dribble is clearly a skill that he'll need to become a higher usage scorer. Hopefully we'll see a trend in the right direction in that department, and hopefully we'll see more of the offense flowing through Giannis in the weeks and months ahead.