Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
So, so many things have abruptly fallen flat this postseason. LeBron and the Lakers lost Anthony Davis during their first-round matchup against the all-consuming fire that is the Suns. Nuggets superstar and MVP Nikola Jokić, somehow spectacular and present all year long, was stunningly banished to the locker room in the closing minutes of Denver’s season-ending loss. The top-seeded Sixers, who’ve blown leads of 18 points and 26 points in back-to-back losses, respectively, sit on the cusp of elimination.
Yet with each of those players and teams, there is so much more to the story. Los Angeles couldn’t stay healthy, and fought to spackle things together down the stretch, needing the play-in game to even secure its spot in the opening round. Jokić had done just about everything he could—including pushing the Nuggets past the Blazers in the first round—after losing Jamal Murray to a devastating ACL tear back in April.
Philly finds itself with far fewer excuses. But Joel Embiid is playing on a small meniscus tear in his right knee that obviously hasn’t sapped Embiid’s ability but does appear to take its toll in second halves, where he’s been nowhere nearly as effective. His costar, Ben Simmons, is an incredible defender by all accounts, but he just took fewer than five shot attempts for the second time in the Sixers’ series with the Hawks, and likely isn’t the ideal fit with Embiid the club hoped he would be when they inked him to a max deal in 2019.
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man who logged a 34-point, 12-rebound, four-assist game on 63% shooting, yet was deservingly panned for his showing in a seemingly disastrous 114–108 Game 5 loss to the heavily diminished Nets Tuesday.
Yes, he put up big numbers befitting a superstar. But unlike the Lakers or the Nuggets, who can have at least some reason for optimism once they eventually return to health, or even the Sixers, who can undergo substantial alterations to their roster after their first year under Doc Rivers and president Daryl Morey, something about this potential setback would feel particularly dispiriting for Giannis and the Bucks.
Even after Nets guard James Harden exited the series just seconds into Game 1, the series felt a tad lopsided through three games, as Brooklyn carried a 2–1 edge. Brooklyn then lost Kyrie Irving, too, after a bad ankle tweak in Game 4, which helped the Bucks knot the matchup at two games apiece. Then came Game 5, where Harden returned to labor through his hamstring issue to shoot 1-for-10. Between Irving’s absence and Harden’s clearly lagging, Milwaukee had a golden opportunity to take control of the series. But rather than take the bull by the horns, Giannis all but watched Kevin Durant take the Bucks by the antlers.
Just two years removed from rupturing his Achilles, the Nets star had a performance for the ages in Game 5, igniting for 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists while carrying the load by playing all 48 minutes.
Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, finished Game 5 with an enormous box-score line but little else. As Durant lit up the Bucks like a Christmas tree, Antetokounmpo didn’t step up from his defensive assignment—guarding Brooklyn sharpshooter Joe Harris—to try to stop the 6' 11" scoring wizard.
It brought to mind last year’s postseason, in which Jimmy Butler diced up Milwaukee to the tune of 40 in a Miami win without Giannis’s ever picking him up on defense. “He’s one of the best help-side defenders that there [is] in the league. And that’s what he’s been doing all year long. … I think you’ve got to really just got to focus on what you do, since you’ve been doing it all year,” Butler said, surmising why he believed Antetokounmpo, the Defensive Player of the Year that season, never defended him that night.
This isn’t to say the task of stopping Durant would’ve been easy for Antetokounmpo. For starters, he ended up with six personal fouls, anyway, even without guarding Durant. So he might have found himself more saddled with foul trouble had he been given that challenge. The Nets wisely used screens for Durant before he even crossed half court sometimes, regularly extending Milwaukee’s defense—which generally plays a drop coverage, with center Brook Lopez rarely coming above the free throw line for any reason—to new uncomfortable limits to essentially force Lopez off the floor. And once the Bucks downsized to a quicker defensive lineup that had better ability to switch, Durant had his way just as easily. (Giannis told reporters he wanted the challenge of stopping Durant for the win-or-go-home Game 6.)
There were pretty glaring issues beyond what Antetokounmpo didn’t do on defense, though.
For starters, there was a huge play, with just under two minutes left, where he had the hobbled Harden in a one-on-one scenario with the score tied at 104. Standing in the midpost on the left side of the floor, he was faced up against the Nets star. Recognizing it was a mismatch, particularly with Harden at far less than 100%, Brooklyn’s Landry Shamet—tasked with guarding Khris Middleton on the perimeter—started to cheat down some to help Harden out. Harden waved him away, saying he didn’t need the second defender.
Rather than try to go around the slower, injured defender, or over the shorter defender, Antetokounmpo launched into a turnaround, fadeaway jumper, a shot he cashed in at just a 38.5% clip during the regular season, according to NBA.com. (Aside from letting Harden off the hook, it also played into one of his strengths. He’s long been one of the best guards at defending the post.)
Then, with 20 seconds left and Milwaukee down by two, Middleton got into the paint and made a near-perfect dump-off pass for Antetokounmpo. The Nets’ Jeff Green jumped, anticipating that Middleton would take the shot. So Giannis was in great position to catch the ball and dunk it home.
Instead, it slipped right through his hands and fell to the floor, where Durant grabbed it.
After the game, on TNT’s Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley said he thought Antetokounmpo dropped the pass because he was concerned about getting fouled and having to go to the line, where he struggles.
The end of the contest was a microcosm for the challenges with Antetokounmpo at this point in his career. He’s a dominant defender with otherworldly athleticism, arms the length of a billboard and the height to match. But he’s not in a traditional locksmith in a shut-down cornerback sort of way. So the skill feels a bit watered down in moments when the Bucks can’t stop a dominant wing player. He’s a terror in transition, and may be the most unstoppable player in the paint since Shaq. But teams counter that ability come playoff time by walling off the painted area, trusting that he’ll overthink enough plays, and barrel himself into just enough offensive fouls. And as someone who’s stagnated with his jumper, he struggles to comfortably create his own shot when left open from midrange or the three-point line. Too often, his plays end like the one with Harden. And he’s regressed considerably from the free throw line the past two years.
It all raises a question that seems both harsh but also warranted at this point: What skill has he improved upon since becoming a two-time MVP?
Perhaps trying to make life a bit easier for him after the last two postseason exits, the team tweaked its offense around him. Especially at the beginning of the season, when they plugged him into the dunker spot along the baseline—something the Bucks were willing to take a short-term hit for in hopes of making for a higher playoff ceiling. Point guard Jrue Holiday, whom Milwaukee spent big on to upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, also figured to raise that ceiling. Which is why the Game 5 loss to the Nets was so disheartening, and why the Milwaukee front office may need to reexamine everything if the Bucks drop this series.
On the one hand, Antetokounmpo’s struggle to break through isn’t unusual. It’s well established that some of the biggest names in recent decades—Jordan, LeBron, Steph, Isaiah Thomas—won their first titles at age 27. Shaq and Durant won theirs at age 28. It’s easy to look at the last few playoff failures and think Antetokounmpo won’t ever break through. But Giannis, a late bloomer who hadn’t started playing the sport until 2008—five years before he was drafted—is still just 26, and may not be a finished product.
Truthfully, what this all means is that he’s understandably being held to the standard of a LeBron-like superstar. We’ve watched LeBron guard lesser players for three and a half quarters, but then take on the toughest cover for the final six minutes of a game. We’ve watched him close out games, even if he struggled with his shot for the vast majority of the contest. James, too, won accolades before the ultimate postseason success followed behind. And now fans are wondering whether Giannis is superior enough to avoid being neutralized when it matters most.
When the games are fast, in transition, Antetokounmpo is at his best, Eurostepping sometimes, and one-dribbling his way to the basket from half court other times. (He’s also great in pick-and-rolls with Middleton.) When things slow to a halt, though, you can see the wheels turning in his head. When left open, he’s thinking, “Should I shoot, or shouldn’t I?” When he sees a path sealed off, he’s trying to figure out whether he has the speed and leverage to jam his way into a crevice before he’ll get whistled for a charge. What if he gets fouled?
But as we’ve seen with him at the line this postseason, he occasionally thinks so long he runs out of time.
The box-score numbers are there. Now, he just needs to find ways to deliver them in the key moments, when his limited skill set hinders him. Until then, the criticism will only intensify.
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