One of the true joys of cheering for Giannis Antetokounmpo is his humility. As the consummate “says the right thing” guy, it’s eery how well he fits in with our midwestern sensibilities. The guy spoils us worse than than the Dursley family on Christmas. His humble “aw shucks” attitude is also what makes it easy for me to build a moat around our superstar to soften the blow of criticism. The crush of recent postseason defeats have been difficult, but the love for Giannis endures, an emotional conflict I discussed during the near-nadir of last year’s Playoff collapse against Miami.
Before round one, almost unanimously, Brew Hoop writers predicted Giannis would be the best player in the series. Explicit and implicit in those statements was the idea he would simply have to be the best if the Bucks hoped to win. Turns out, not really. While Antetokounmpo led in the core counting stats, “best player” had plenty of other deserving candidates. Khris Middleton’s consistent shooting and intermittent offensive spurts carried the Bucks, not to mention his iconic game-winner. Jrue Holiday, catalyzed their scoring barrages with a parade of assists while locking up Miami’s perimeter and flipping momentum with timely steals. The fact there’s a debate could be construed as a positive, the end result of a year of tinkering that’s helped all three of Milwaukee’s stars exemplify their best traits. Against Brooklyn though, I’m fairly certain we will only find ourselves discussing a Conference Finals matchup if the answer to “who was the best Buck?” is irrefutably Giannis, primarily on the offensive end. If you watched the regular season matchups, it isn’t rocket science. He needs to score like never before.
Among Playoffs series with a semblance of stakes, Giannis’s best series was the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston when he averaged 28 points, 11 boards and a tick over five assists. After being stymied in Game One, he came back with a vengeance and enveloped Kyrie’s Celtics squad in four straight games. Since then, it’s been a mixed bag. The counting stats look decent, but he shot 44.8% against Toronto, 50.8% against Miami last year and just 45% in this year’s first round. His 3-point shooting has obviously never been a strength, but he’s gone just 4-30 in the last two Playoff rounds against Miami. Even if I wince at those shots, the Nets are going to give him those, and he’s gonna take some folks. I doubt he’ll shoot as poor as 13%, but who knows.
As a baseline, here are Giannis’s numbers against the Nets this season:
The numbers are eye-popping, but I not out of line with what Milwaukee should be hoping from him if they want to win this series. A sneaky satisfying number there is just 2.3 turnovers, especially considering how often the ball was in his hand (38% usage compared to his season-long rate around 32%). His scoring load will be a gargantuan, but there’s no clear threat to his gargantuan body on the Brooklyn Nets roster. If Steve Nash wants to dust off DeAndre Jordan (who has played 5 minutes total since the Nets last faced Milwaukee), go right ahead. He may make the most sense on paper, but he has no answer for Giannis beyond backing off of him and hoping Giannis misses a few jump shots or doesn’t draw a foul and finish when barreling into the paint.
While Antetokounmpo can certainly take Jordan off the dribble, we also know he’s going to pull up for jumpers and probably have to hit a few to keep him honest. If they aren’t falling one night, he can’t fall in love with them. There are other ways to get him involved, like letting Holiday or Middleton penetrate and allowing Giannis to slash into the lane as an off-ball cutter. This is silly bad defense by Jordan helping out on Giannis that far (also, partially, a product of him taking threes), but the Bucks ball handlers can find Antetokounmpo screaming to the basket when he can take advantage of his athleticism while the defense is scrambling:
We all know that screens will serve as the key diversification for Giannis usage this series. We saw it slice through the Nets sagging strategy late in the first tilt. Giannis set a screen for Middleton up top, Jordan dropped and Khris calmly hit jumper after jumper over the gaping hole in front of him. The Bucks have come a long way in using that tactic, and they should be able to employ it to great aplomb to help both Holiday and Middleton get downhill. If they get locked up and the Nets switch with aggression, there’s always a counter in the form of Antetokounmpo rolling with reckless abandon:
He can also set screens when operating out of DHO’s with Bryn Forbes, Holiday and Middleton. As they whirl around to collect the ball from him near the top of the arc, he can extend his body, flip them the ball and get them an easy open look. It’s sort of the big brother to the Tony Snell play. If Giannis sees his defender creeping up to guard the shooter, he could also fake the DHO and then drive directly into the teeth of the defense. I don’t love the midrange variation of this set as much, but you can’t begrudge any type of made bucket against the Nets.
Of course, there are also times when Giannis will need to turbo charge forward. Watching his shots from first game, there are myriad blown assignments by the Nets, overpowering performances by Giannis against smaller defenders and him pushing the ball in transition. Taking advantage of each and every one of those buckets will be necessary to keep running up the score. Both Brook and DeAndre can withstand some of Antetokounmpo’s physicality, but that’s where improved patience by Giannis could pay dividends. When he gets deep under the basket, he doesn’t have to always rush it if the Nets are sending help. There’s time to turn this into a soft hook if he doesn’t find an open teammate for a pass.
If the Nets opt to go away from exclusively using Jordan, the Bucks will benefit from getting Giannis the ball closer to the basket. It could be on soft rolls after a screen, or just him posting up at the elbow. In the second matchup, he had plenty of chances late to size up Blake Griffin. Even here, he backs up but is still closer than the full head of steam from atop the key we’ve seen so much in the past. The less distance between Giannis and the basket, the fewer opportunities there are for him to pick up charges. That’s a real thread against Griffin, who certainly can’t guard Giannis, but he does lead the league in charges drawn.
While Giannis’s shot was severely off in the final Nets matchup, he still put up 30 shots, a clear sign he understands the importance of his aggression against this team. His two highest FGA (36 & 30) this season both came against the Nets. If Brooklyn deviates from their regular season strategy and doubles, it will be a fascinating test to see how far Giannis’s playmaking has come in the past several postseasons. We saw him carve up Miami in Game Four with 15 assists, and the Bucks have constructed significantly more deadly and numerous outlet valves for when their star skydives towards the rim. How he threads the needle between scoring aggression and opportune playmaking is the likeliest weather vane for Milwaukee this series.
Since Bud took over this team, the biggest factor that’s blocked Giannis from carrying this team to its Playoff aspirations have been the dynamic defenses in Toronto and Miami. Brooklyn is decisively not that. This time, the walls are more proverbial than literal. That may not make it any easier for Giannis to plow through, but he’s certainly going to try. A win would do wonders for overcoming the “regular season player” whispers that have grown slightly more audible as the years go on. The Nets showed during the regular season they’re comfortable letting Giannis try to beat them. I can’t wait to see if he can do just that.