Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker spread their wings on national TV might not have delivered a win, but -- newsflash! -- for now the latter is far less important than the former. That might ring somewhat hollow to fans demanding another major leap in the standings after last season's 26-win improvement, but after a decade of short-term thinking we should by now know better, right?
After a season-low 9 points on 3/13 shooting on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo bounced back with the best offensive performance of his young career, hitting his first five shots en route to a hyper-efficient career-high of 33 points on 12/15 from the field and 8/8 from the free throw line. He took advantage of switches to get a pair of easy buckets in the post early on, the beginning of a night featuring his entire arsenal. A drive and jumpstop drew a fly-by from LeBron James that created an easy dunk. Run-outs in transition led to dunks in both halves, the second a pretty give-and-go with Jabari. And he saved his biggest highlight reel play for the fourth quarter, when he drove left on Tristan Thompson and spun back counter-clockwise to flush over James again.
Parker didn't score in such volumes, but he once again looked lively -- not to mention a matchup nightmare for Kevin Love and the rest of the Cleveland bigs. After missing Tuesday's game with a sore foot, Parker started and played 30 minutes for the second straight game, suggesting that both Parker and the Bucks are ready to take the training wheels off after his 11-month rehab from a torn left ACL. After settling for a pair of early long twos -- a recurring theme in many games -- Parker began to attack more as the game wore on, repeatedly beating defenders off the dribble on his way to a season-best 14 points on 6/10 shooting.
That raised his season shooting percentage to 52.3%, while his finishing in the restricted area rose to a team-best 76%. It would have been fair to expect Jabari to be a bit more perimeter-based as he regained his timing and confidence following a major knee injury, which makes those numbers all the more impressive. It's not to say he's fully recovered or 100%, but in many ways that makes what he's doing even more exciting. If he's looking this explosive less than a year after blowing out his knee, how good will he look in another six months? What will happen when his perimeter shot starts falling?
The key for the Bucks going forward is of course keeping both Giannis and Jabari involved and finding ways to exploit the mismatches they create even without much floor spacing around them. While Giannis' usage is way up (23% vs. 19% last year), Parker's involvement has been more limited in the early stages of his comeback (16% usage vs. 21% last year). The latter figure will have to rise now that Parker is getting back his mojo, hopefully at the expense of Michael Carter-Williams (24% usage), though staggering their minutes to see more time with reserves would also keep the ball in their hands more consistently.
As I mentioned in the Cavs preview, the Bucks have also played at a very slow pace with Jabari and Giannis on the court thus far, meaning they could stand to up the tempo a bit and take advantage of both players' considerable open court talents. While the Bucks don't run much P&R unless Greivis Vasquez is in, both Parker and Antetokounmpo can create problems in those actions, and we've also seen them both capable of acting as a P&R handler at times (see Jabari's reel above). I'd still like to see Jabari try picking and popping for open threes at times as well -- based on his shooting in high school and college, there's no reason to think he can't develop a reasonable consistent three point shot. Threes would also be more attractive than the contested off-the-dribble 20-footers we've often seen from him early in games, though I'd also say that attacking to get in the paint should always be his first priority.
While the Bucks' offense remains an encouraging 12th in the league, they've often gotten bogged at the start of the shot clock, especially with teams pushing Greg Monroe further and further away from the hoop. As we've discussed on some recent podcasts, that's not necessarily a spacing issue per se, but it does throw off the Bucks' sets and limits Monroe's options as a both a passer and scorer. Brent Barry and John Schumann had a terrific discussion of the Bucks' offense and defense on NBA.com Friday, and that was one of the concerns Barry raised.
It's probably better to get side-to-side movement and then that action late, rather than broadcast it with the post-up on the first pass, where the defense can load up and be in good rebounding position.
One thing that bothered me is that they're getting pushed up so high on the initial catch in the corner series. When Monroe sets up at the elbow and a guy like Tristan Thompson pushes him from the elbow to the 3-point line, the corner series doesn't work.
You can't make passes to back-door cutters from the 3-point line. A dribble hand-off is too far away to create a good angle for the offense.
It's not to say the Bucks can magically overcome their lack of spacing by iso-ing Parker and Antetokounmpo every time down the court, but getting both involved in sets earlier and more often figures to benefit the Bucks both now and in the future. Few teams can match up with both of them at the same time, and they both have the ability to force defenses to collapse while making plays for themselves or others. It's a big responsibility, but it's one they appear increasingly ready to shoulder.