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Initiator or Finisher: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Balancing Act vs. Brooklyn

Milwaukee superstar has to deliver in Game Six

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are staring their season’s end straight in the eyes, but I keep thinking back to this exchange between Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game Four. Already, it seems like a lifetime ago.

Middleton’s mini gesture is easy to miss, but spoke plenty about the state of how this series has gone for Milwaukee’s offensive engines. After Giannis stops around midcourt to ask for the ball, you can visibly see Khris imploring Giannis to get his butt down the floor. Perhaps that would’ve been the right read. Theoretically it makes sense to dish it to Giannis immediately so he can push his advantage in transition. Instead, Middleton’s hand wave says, “fly, you fool.” Here’s what happens on the offensive end of that exchange:

Giannis gets the early seal against the smaller Jeff Green and Middleton feeds him before the Nets can send help or get their defense set. I wrote before this series that the closer Giannis get the ball near the basket, the less chance of him committing an offensive foul or getting flummoxed and settling for a turnaround jumper. Well, it doesn’t get much closer than the clip above. But, I also think it’s illustrative of what we’ve seen from Giannis, in particular through the first three games. Namely, “initiator Giannis” hasn’t worked like it should.

Now, he found some better rhythm in the last few contests, and was able to create a few more opportunities for teammates with his probing. But the fact remains, through five games he has 17 assists and 22 turnovers. Assist stats are obviously reliant upon shooters delivering, but Giannis hasn’t shown nearly the level of sophistication in his creator role we saw at times throughout the regular season. Unfortunately for Milwaukee’s chances, it’s not immediately clear Middleton or this tentative version of Jrue Holiday will be the answer they need to reach the Conference Finals either. Khris no-showed Games One and Two. Holiday’s lack of confidence at this point flies in the face of the poise we posited he would exude all season. At times, his floaters and jump shots feel like Hail Mary’s.

Still, they each tallied eight and nine assists respectively in Game Four (plus eight more for Holiday in Game five) and seemed to drive the fluidity and motion that helped this Bucks team escape their statuesque offense through three games. Let’s loop back to Giannis though, who did finally manage to find some ways to leverage his aggression into better looks for his teammates. Here was a great indicator of that from Seth Partnow (“Yesterday” meaning Game Four):

Obviously Giannis’s teammates didn’t pay him off as much in Game Four as Middleton, but he still found a few more ways to bend the defense in beneficial ways. In Game Five, I thought he actually finally found ways to weaponize himself as a passer off dribble handoffs too. He wound up with 11 potential assists (four actual) and this sequence showed far more patience than what we’ve typically seen.

It’s certainly not a premier shot, but even him merely passing up the three and calling upon Forbes after Middleton tried to screen shows some level of growth. They’ll need every bit of that in Game Six. Later, Giannis also found some continuity with Pat Connaughton. Planet Pat needs to be in aggressive driving mode for this play to work, but the Nets wind up switching this action (something they haven’t done much when Giannis screens) and Connaughton gets a head of steam to drive downhill against Griffin.

That won’t work every time, but it helps Giannis get the ball to a player on the move rather than forcing them to attack from a standstill screen. You’d like to see Holiday and Middleton continue to attack the paint with this level of aggression on those moves. One of the cruel truths of this series has been that while the Bucks spent all season utilizing the “dunker spot” as a way for Giannis to best “the wall” he’s seen these postseasons, but I don’t think Brooklyn has really built one in the same manner as Toronto or Miami. They’ve allowed Blake Griffin to mostly take Antetokounmpo one-on-one, sending help once he’s deep in the paint and already started his spin rather than near the free throw line. It’s on Giannis to make faster reads, but with Game Six looming, I’m not sure that adjustment is coming. The Nets are drawing offensive fouls too easily, and the season is on the line.

This is the conundrum of Giannis though. Giannis may not be LeBron James, but he’s not Shaq either. Completely cutting off his creation skills would be snuffing out one of the things that makes him special when guarded by larger defenders. He’s still able to bend the floor in crazy ways that can lead to hockey assists to himself like in the sequence below.

Still, I’m not sure how I trust his decision making in that role right now. I think they’ll need Giannis as a detonator beneath the rim by getting early position down low whenever possible, finding ways to work off ball, and pushing himself deeper into the trenches. We’ve seen this play plenty this season, and it’s just another tool for the Bucks to exploit the Nets lack of rim protection before they can create the glob of guys they’ve used to deter Milwaukee at the rim this series.

Again, that play won’t be there every time since it’s partially a product of poor help defense, but it speaks to the power of Giannis rushing down floor to the basket while others space the floor. Despite the Nets seemingly being less equipped to slow Giannis down low though, he’s actually getting fewer paint touches and post-ups this series than against the Miami Heat. Some of that could be from a lack of offensive rebounds against Brooklyn (he had 14 against Miami; only four so far against the Nets).

Giannis Touches/Game by Location

Series Paint Touches Pts/Touch Post-ups Pts/Post-up Elbow Touches Pts/Touch
Series Paint Touches Pts/Touch Post-ups Pts/Post-up Elbow Touches Pts/Touch
Regular Season 6 0.96 4.5 0.59 4.8 0.76
Miami Series 7.3 0.72 4.8 0.63 3.3 0.46
Nets Series 4.8 1.07 4.2 0.24 8 0.68

He isn’t tearing it up though even when the Bucks get him the ball closer to the basket. A clear area for improvement this offseason is Giannis as a post player, where he’s been horrific against the Nets. If he’s not able to bulldoze his way around a defender, then he’s liable to get a charge or settle for a turnaround jumper/midranger. Nothing typified that more than his lame duck fadeaway against James Harden late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game. Getting “touches” in the paint beyond rolling isn’t always the easiest, and is liable to lead to turnovers if forced (see passes to Brook Lopez in G1), but any way to facilitate more of that out of Jrue or Khris pick-and-rolls would be a welcome sight. Giannis has really only found supreme shooting success beneath the bucket this series. (I’m choosing to ignore his above-the-break 3 percentage...)

We’ve seen a bit more five-out offense in this series and I get it in theory, trying to clear up the lane and allow easier driving lanes for Khris, Jrue and Giannis. If that’s going to be the case and Brook is relegated mostly to his Splash Mountain ways, the Bucks should be actively looking to find Giannis deep in the paint. Some of it is also on him; he should be able to navigate around a hobbled James Harden. We also know Giannis has served far more as a screener this series. As Zach Lowe stated in his article last week (paywall):

Antetokounmpo has set 68 ball screens in three games — about 30 per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum. He averaged 19 in the regular season. His 35 on-ball screens in Game 3 marked his second-highest figure in any game over the past two seasons. The 20 ball screens he set in Game 1 were tied for his sixth most over that span.

Lowe also mentioned just how pithy the production has been out of those actions, ranking near dead last in terms of efficiency. Even when Giannis has rolled, he’s had trouble finding chemistry or flat out holding onto the ball when receiving some pocket passes. Tuesday’s final minute gaffe was just the latest entry in our Bucks Funniest Home Videos reel. Still, the action keeps Nets defenders having to chase around the Bucks primary playmakers, and the Nets have moved towards more Jeff Green on the floor against Giannis, a matchup I’d like to see the Bucks exploit early and often.

Against Miami, he averaged 11 shots in the restricted area and just 2.5 in the paint (non-restricted area). Against Brooklyn, he’s at 9.6 and 6.0 in those areas respectively. We’ve said before, during, and will say it after, this series is gonna go as Giannis Antetokounmpo goes. With Game Six looming, it’s time to put him in his best situations to succeed, on every possession, and see if he can demoralize the Nets down low the way Durant does to Bucks fans with his preposterous shotmaking. In this moment, there’s no easy answer for finding the balance between Giannis’s playmaking nature (the very nature that made him so unique) and his awe-inspiring proficiency at the rim. At least, not after so many years and reps. But there’s also no easy answers that await this team should they get ousted by this depleted Nets team. We’ll find out whether we have to broach all those questions after Thursday’s contest.

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