The Milwaukee Bucks left Toronto with a massive victory over the Raptors on Thursday night. Not only was it a game played in front of a national audience on TNT, it also had playoff implications with the Bucks taking the season series 3-1 and now holding the tie-breaker should it be needed.
It was a hard-fought game with the Bucks leading by as many as 24 points at one point in the third quarter. Toronto wouldn’t go away easily, however, as they closed the gap to six. Fortunately, the Bucks don’t rattle easily, as they maintained their composure and finished strong down the stretch.
In every game, there are little nuances that often go unnoticed. Certain aspects that are difficult to see with the casual eye. In critical Bucks’ games this season, I’m taking the time to break down different aspects that make a huge difference and directly lead to the outcome of the game. Last night, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s passing.
Antetokounmpo finished the game with a seemingly measly five assists. However, those dimes accounted for 27.8 percent of his teammates made baskets when he was on the floor, and was the highest of any player for either team according to Cleaning the Glass.
The attention the Greek Freak attracts on any given possession is monumental. After Antetokounmpo dropped 43 points on the Raptor’s head last time out, that was especially the case on Thursday:
Antetokounmpo’s initial post up dribble raises Pascal Siakam’s awareness of the situation. Siakam, who is now matched up with Eric Bledsoe after a switch, immediately slides to the nail and puts his arms out wide. Antetokounmpo sees this so he switches his dribble and heads toward the baseline.
Siakam proceeds by coming with a hard double on the block and the ensuing scramble begins. The highest defender slides over to take away Bledsoe because that’s the easiest pass for Antetokounmpo. The opposite wing defender drops down to take away Ersan Illyasova and Fred VanVleet is charged with defending both Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell.
After years of practice, Antetokounmpo stays calm in the situation and takes his time. That’s a lot easier said than done, but the Bucks’ All-Star does a great job here. He pivots back to the middle and throws an elegant pass right in the shot pocket of Brogdon, a 50 percent shooter from the corner, who splashes it home. Yak Yak!
Less than two minutes later, Antetokounmpo drops a fancy looking dime to the new Sixth Man of the Year candidate D.J. Wilson.
Following a missed shot by OG Anunoby and a rebound by Antetokounmpo, he brings the ball up the floor. With all 10 defensive eyes on him drawing a physical wall with their bodies, he knows exactly what he’s going to do before he ever crosses half court.
Antetokounmpo expertly toys with the defense like a puppeteer pulling the strings. A manipulative right-to-left crossover dribble and a half-hearted drive toward the paint has the defense on high alert. With Serge Ibaka desperately concerned about Antetokounmpo getting into the paint, he deserts his man in the corner. That’s when Antetokounmpo’s plan comes to fruition and he whips a bullet right into Wilson’s hands for three more points.
Antetokounmpo’s third assist of the night was another lesson in patience and trust. Once again, he finds himself in a mismatch on the left wing. And once again he begins to back down with an eye toward the middle of the paint.
Instead of Siakam doubling from the middle, however, the help is coming from the baseline where Ibaka has to abandon his individual defensive duties. Ibaka’s sole responsibility at this point is to give his smaller brethren help in the post. By doing so, that means Toronto is once more putting VanVleet in a two-on-one situation.
As Antetokounmpo man handles Kyle Lowry into the paint, Norman Powell dekes like he’s going to help before recovering to Tony Snell on the top of the key. Now, the hard double comes from Ibaka. As designed, Wilson is setting a pin-down screen on the weak side block in order to try to free Brogdon in the corner and that is Antetokounmpo’s first read.
VanVleet notices this too and fights to get through the screen and recover to the dangerous Brogdon in the corner. However, both Antetokounmpo and Wilson read this and Wilson slips his screen for a wide open dump pass for the and-one. (Side Note: Notice how Antetokounmpo has the distinct advantage of throwing this pass over the defense. Without his length and height, this look would’n’t have been possible)
The last assist we’ll look at comes as the dagger for the Bucks and shows why Antetokounmpo’s teammates love playing with him.
With just over a minute left to go, Toronto’s chances of mounting a comeback are thin. They need every stop they can get and then some. It’s an eerily similar situation to the Raptors game against the Houston Rockets on January 25th when they mounted a furious nine-point comeback over the final 1:07 before falling by two points.
Instead of running the shot clock all the way down and going with the traditional pick-and-roll, Antetokounmpo decides to attack on his terms. With destruction on his mind, he barrages toward the strong side corner knowing Kawhi Leonard won’t help off Khris Middleton in the corner and the help will have to come from elsewhere. Once Antetokounmpo gets to the elbow, he knows it’s over for the Raptors.
Toronto sends poor VanVleet to double, leaving Brogdon wide open at the top of the key. On time and on point once again, the MVP candidate calls game by delivering a delicate pass that allows Brogdon to hop into his shot and take a rhythm three.
Even though Antetokounmpo’s assists numbers don’t always jump off the page at you, it’s one of the most improved areas of his game.
He already disrupts defenses by getting deep into the lane and getting shot after shot around the hoop. Now, he has the third eye to understand where the defense is going to be. This allows him to play one step ahead and find the plethora of shooters around him on the court. This is the Antetokounmpo the NBA does NOT want to see.