Through two games of the East semis, the Heat have muted the impact of reigning (and expected two-time) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, racing out to a 2–0 lead in the process. Since averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists during the regular season, the Greek Freak is putting up 23.5 points, 12 rebounds and 6.0 assists a night after two games against Miami. The counting stats aren’t even terrible for Antetokounmpo—a testament to his greatness—and he put up something much closer to a typical stat line in Game 2. And yet, the Bucks’ offensive rating is a shocking 102.0 with Giannis on the court in the second round, an absolute free fall from the 112.8 mark they posted with him during the regular season. If Milwaukee hopes to bounce back in this series, a more dominant performance from Antetokounmpo would go a long way.
So how exactly have the Heat cooled off the Bucks' offense with Giannis on the floor? Miami’s help defense has been outstanding, particularly when Antetokounmpo initiates the offense from the top of the key. As Giannis looks into the paint, he’s almost always staring at a forest of long-armed defenders waiting to wall him off. The Heat are content taking an extra step off shooters to help keep Antetokounmpo out of the lane. It’s a worthwhile strategy, considering Milwaukee shot only 35.5% from three during the regular season—18th-best in the NBA. What helps Miami is it has the athletes to double Giannis when he makes a downhill move, recover to shooters on the perimeter and scramble when necessary. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Jae Crowder are all very capable of moving in sync, as are Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr. off the bench.
Milwaukee hasn’t gotten everything going all at once. In Game 1, the Bucks shot 16-of-35 from three (out-making and out-attempting the Heat) but Giannis scored only 18 points. In Game 2, Antetokounmpo came closer to his normal numbers, but the shooters weren’t as successful from beyond the arc (7-of-25.) The Heat are playing incredibly disciplined defense, keeping their arms active on Giannis, bringing hard doubles when he has good position and trying to force other players to shoot. Most teams try to employ some version of this strategy against Milwaukee, but Miami is executing at an incredibly high level.
What’s one counter for the Bucks? Using Antetokounmpo in more pick-and-rolls—particularly as the roll man—could be a start. Through seven playoff games, Giannis is averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roller, frequently getting to the free-throw line as well because of the pressure this puts on the defense. Milwaukee doesn’t run this action for Giannis enough (Brook Lopez does it more often), but it could be a way for Mike Budenholzer to target the Heat’s lesser defenders. Any pick and rolls involving the Heat’s rangy wings will simply result in a switch. But if Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson is one of the defenders, Miami typically won’t throw him on Giannis. That gives Antetokounmpo an opportunity to take advantage of a more conservative coverage if he rolls hard to the hoop and the Bucks' guards—like Eric Bledsoe—make it a point to get in the lane.
Of course, that’s only one small slice of this series. Milwaukee’s defense has struggled at times. Budenholzer probably needs to play Giannis for more minutes. The Bucks still almost stole Game 2. Whatever adjustment Bud makes, Spo will certainly counter, and the series will go on until one team can exploit a mismatch the other one simply has no answer for. Milwaukee certainly isn’t dead, but it has not thrown a worthwhile punch back at the Heat through two games.
What’s been most shocking so far is how little imprint Antetokounmpo has had in this series. Even when putting up great numbers in Game 2, at no point has it felt like Giannis has been dictating the action when he’s on the floor. There haven’t been any stretches of dominance. It’s just not what fans have come to expect from the Freak on either side of the court.
In a way, the 2–0 hole does set up for an exciting finish for Antetokounmpo, specifically. I don’t want to feed any narratives about Giannis‘s game or what a playoff exit would mean for his career. But the 2–0 hole is definitely the most adversity Giannis has faced since his arrival on the elite stage at the start of last season. There’s no Kawhi or LeBron bogeyman left in the East. Antetokoumnpo is the best player, and his team is expected to make the Finals. His back is against the wall. How will he respond? As a fan, it’s exciting to see a superstar in this position, because desperation often fuels greatness.
While it’s far from the start Milwaukee wanted, the stage has been set for an MVP-level response from Antetokounmpo. Can he return to the level of dominance he showed during the regular season? So far, the Heat have dictated the terms of this series. Regardless of how Giannis does it, for the Bucks to win, he needs to exert his control.