The Bucks may not have come out on top, but last Friday's game against the Houston Rockets gave us plenty to get excited about. That's because Giannis Anetokounmpo played quite possibly the best game of his career that night, posting 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists in 35 minutes. He made 11 of 16 shots from the field and 5 of 6 free throws. The 27 points were a new career high in scoring, eclipsing the 25-point career mark he set just two days earlier.
The Rockets may be known for their offense thanks to James Harden and Company, but they're no defensive pushovers either, currently ranking in the top-5 in team defensive efficiency. So how was Giannis able to put up such big numbers so efficiently? Start with exploiting the positional mismatches he can create due to his size, then add some raw strength, agility, and body control in the open court. But the key ingredient in this masterful game was space. Empty, beautiful space.
Giannis had his usual handful of transition baskets to get himself going, including a couple of tough contested makes, but what jumped out to many who watched the game was the confidence with which he loosed his jumper. Let's take a look at one play that freed him up for a wide open midrange shot. The play starts with a staggered screen for Brandon Knight set by John Henson and Giannis.
Patrick Beverly gets hung up on Henson's screen for a second and chases Knight over that top of Giannis. Josh Smith, who is covering Giannis jumps out to slow Knight. This is the first example of "space" coming into play. Knight's three-point shooting ability forces Beverly to recover in as direct a route as possible, which means Smith has to focus on Knight on the perimeter and forget about Giannis. Meanwhile, Henson has rolled into the paint, taking his man Donatas Motiejunas with him.
Because Beverly is essentially chasing Knight from behind, there's a nice window for a bounce pass to Giannis just above the free-throw circle. Knight delivers a nicely timed pass, and because Henson has pulled Motiejunas deep into the paint (space contribution number two), Giannis has tons of time to step into an open 19-footer.
Later in the game, Giannis gets another open look from nearly the same spot, this time freed up by a rolling Ersan Ilyasova.
Josh Smith is again caught in a tough spot, forced to stick in the paint for an extra moment to stop Ilyasova's roll to the basket, leaving Giannis open. Giannis gets the ball and buries the shot without hesitation.
These and other plays from the Houston game are a clear example of the space teams can create from both the outside and inside zones on the court. By occupying defenders with threatening moves toward the basket, the Bucks can create open jumpers for their wings. Now, 19-foot jumpers aren't shots you want to be targeting a whole lot, but for a player like Giannis, just establishing the threat of that jumper could unleash all sorts of unholy terror on defenses. Imagine what he can do when defenders have to close out hard on him to defend those jumpers, allowing him to use a quick pump fake and attack the rim. Scary.
Of course, creating these open shots is just half the equation. Giannis has to be able to make them somewhat consistently before defenders are going to really respect that shot. Thankfully, he's shown a determination to improve in that respect, and it seems to be working.
Screenshots courtesy of stats.nba.com.