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The New Play: A Breakdown

A sequence so nice, we’ll watch it twice (or a million times)

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Folks...the Milwaukee Bucks ran something other than The Khris Play, and look what it got them: An extremely satisfying 127-125 win over the Charlotte Hornets. Beyond the victory, though, what might have been more remarkable was the offensive set coach Mike Budenholzer had his team execute with the game tied and 5.9 seconds of play remaining. We’ve all come to know, love, and loathe Milwaukee’s option A in this situation: running Khris Middleton off 2 or 3 off-ball screens into the nearest corner for a three, normally draped by 8 defenders. Instead of going back to the same old, the Bucks opted to put the spotlight on superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, and it was a beauty:

There is so, so, so, so much going on here, all of it a veritable feast for those who love seeing deliberate Xs and Os executed at a high level. Let’s start with the initial court alignment:

We’ve got a couple notable details from the jump. First is Giannis’s positioning literally 3/4ths of the court away from Charlotte’s basket. His defender, PJ Washington, is caught in no man’s land with Giannis so menacingly isolated. Washington can’t play tight on Giannis because there’s no way he’ll be able to match him step-for-step, but he also can’t allow him to get a head of steam heading to the basket. Ergo, he’s almost taken out of the play as a viable defender unless (until) Giannis gets the ball.

The rest of the Bucks are lined up in an angular constellation with four shooters, Khris being the guy doing the inbounding. Given the lineup, the Hornets are probably loathe to allow any of the non-Giannis Bucks (Jrue Holiday, Pat Connaughton, and Grayson Allen) to get free off a motion or pick, so at least to start everyone on Charlotte is completely anchored.

That’s when the magic begins.

If you watch the replay, the first thing I’ll draw your attention to is the timing: Yes, the non-Giannis’s begin their actions the instant Khris is handed the ball, but watch Giannis. One second, two seconds, three seconds... and then he gets moving. By the time he starts to the basket, Charlotte’s defense has been totally shorn open by Milwaukee’s motion. It is utterly perfect timing.

So okay, everyone times things right, but what do the Bucks do to set the table just right? The play begins right as Khris is given the ball by the ref. Immediately, Pat Connaughton, who is posted in the baseline corner to Khris’s left, starts to go cross-court over Jrue Holiday while Holiday sets a pick on Pat’s defender to force a switch:

Action one: complete. Action two now involves the other Buck, Grayson Allen. The guy defending him is Miles Bridges, who in theory could be a formidable help defender on Giannis, so the priority is pulling him away from Giannis’s angle of attack. It helps that Grayson, a 40+% three-point shooter, cannot be left alone. Grayson uses this to his advantage by sprinting past Jrue along the sideline while Jrue sets another screen on Bridges. Dual purpose here? It forces Bridges to really commit to fighting through the screen lest he leave Allen totally uncovered with a clear passing lane from Khris. Problem for Charlotte is, now Bridges is totally neutralized if Milwaukee goes inside.

This springs Allen semi-free, so Khris has an option there, and his look is in that direction. However, the Bucks’ movement, while purposeful, has been something of a complicated distraction up to this point. Look at that second image above and see what PJ Washington is doing: NOT. PAYING. ATTENTION. TO. GIANNIS. He’s still stuck in no-man’s land, and now he’s more isolated than ever. And would you look at that? I just checked my watch and we’re now at that three second mark I mentioned earlier.

Time’s up.

Giannis goes from 0 mph to 100 in a second flat, and once Jrue takes the inbounds and turns to lay it off to a streaking Giannis, it’s about as close to game over as you can get. I mean, seriously, look at just how stranded PJ Washington is once Giannis gets the ball above the break:

Once Giannis gathers, he brings the ball to his right hand, and Washington’s last chance is to jam Antetokounmpo up before he can make a move. Unfortunately for him, Giannis has become so unbelievably skilled at maneuvering every inch of his frame even against tight defense, and so it is a quick euro step and switch to his left hand. The aforementioned Bridges has a chance to hedge in and help Washington out, but Giannis has been slinging the ball like crazy to shooters all night. He freezes, and all that’s left is to hope.

Washington does his level best to keep in the way, but Giannis is too strong, too tall, too long, too talented to allow a smaller (relative to himself) defender get in the way. Look at the body positions each guy has as Giannis goes up to shoot: Washington has turned himself into a sort of sideways ‘U’ to keep a hand in the way, but he’s moving sideways and the momentum is all Giannis’s. Still, it takes an extremely deft touch to get it to fall:

And then it falls. It’s taken a grand total of 3.9 seconds of game time for the Bucks to go from a strung-out constellation to a wide open lane for the superstar forward to rush through to victory.

That’s one hell of a play. Savor it.