The Milwaukee Bucks had no concern for style points heading into Game 3 of their second round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Milwaukee was down 0-2 in the series, and coming off a horrific Game 2 performance that saw them lose by 39 points. The Bucks had to win this game by any means necessary, regardless of how pretty it was.
Milwaukee did win, 86-83, in one of the ugliest NBA playoff games you will ever see. It was a remarkably sluggish affair considering the Nets and Bucks each finished with two of the five most efficient offenses in NBA history this season. Each team shot under 38 percent from the field, and 25 percent or worse from three-point range. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe said, “calling that a rock fight is disrespectful to rock fights.”
Part of what made the game so ugly was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s resolution to take the open threes the Nets were giving him. Antetokounmpo went 1-for-8 on those attempts, and then shot 13-of-23 from two-point range. Giannis did end the night with 33 points and 14 rebounds, but it was mind-boggling to watch him miss three-point attempt after three-point attempt that the Nets were extremely happy to surrender.
Here’s a cut of all of Giannis’ attempts from three-point range in Game 3:
Here’s a look at Giannis’ shooting chart for the game. You may note all of the red X’s above the arc.
Antetokounmpo has never shied away from taking threes. Giannis attempted 3.6 three-pointers per game this year and hit 30.3 percent of them. His volume from the outside was down a bit from last year, when he attempted 4.7 threes per game and made a basically identical 30.4 percent of those shots.
Giannis has been taking threes against the Nets because they are wide open shots, with Brooklyn defenders typically standing at the foul line to leave him all alone at the arc. He takes threes because he knows what it’s like to see them go in, particularly against the Nets. During two regular season games against Brooklyn in early May this year, Antetokounmpo went 8-for-20 from three and powered the Bucks to a pair of big wins. Antetokounmpo is one of the great players in the game today, and he has confidence in his skill set. He has never been someone who plays scared.
There’s a difference between playing scared and playing smart, though, and this is where it comes back to both coaching and public perception.
Mike Budenholzer needs to avoid putting Giannis in position where he’s tempted to shoot
Antetokounmpo has never played with a truly elite offensive initiator since arriving in Milwaukee. He has filled that vacuum in the absence of an elite playmaker, often bringing up the ball and running both pick-and-roll and isolations as a lead handler alongside Khris Middleton and now Jrue Holiday. While it has worked to a great degree during the regular season, the book is out on how to defend Giannis in the playoffs. It’s on his embattled head coach Mike Budenholzer to figure out different ways to use him.
It feels like the Bucks make their offense 500x harder than it should be. Milwaukee needs to leverage Antetokounmpo’s historic combination of size, speed, and raw power by getting him in motion. The easiest way to do this as by making Giannis the screener in the pick-and-roll. When Antetokounmpo rolls hard to the basket, good things happen for Milwaukee:
Milwaukee Wedge Pick-and-roll with Giannis as the roll man — ran it twice with an empty corner and get two rim finishes: Giannis dunk, Jrue layup. Would like even more of this, especially when its Jrue/Middleton/Giannis in combination pic.twitter.com/VraHiFg3zP— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) June 6, 2021
Giannis as a screener for Holiday or Middleton should be the bread-and-butter of Milwaukee’s offense. Instead, the Bucks too often default to Giannis dribbling at the top of the key being tempted to take a shot that he’s not very good at.
The other way to use Giannis is as a cutter off the ball. When Antetokounmpo sets and slips back-screens, he puts an enormous amount of pressure on defenders in Brooklyn’s switch-almost-everything scheme. Milwaukee needs to hunt the weakest link on the Nets’ defense — usually Kyrie Irving — and force them to either forgo the switch or rush over help defenders as Giannis barrels his way to the basket.
While Giannis doesn’t set an off-ball screen in this example, the play does show his skill as a cutter and how much force he can generate when he gets a head start.
The ball movement is great but the player movement at the very end is big, Giannis cutting behind Harris is how they can attack the Nets defense. pic.twitter.com/PNiFaUcUTC— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) June 10, 2021
Budenholzer has been a wonderful regular season coach for the Bucks over the last several years, but he’s lucky he kept his job after last season’s disappointing second round loss to the Miami Heat in the bubble. Bud is very obviously coaching for his job in this series. He needs to adjust to put more pressure on the Nets, and that starts with how he uses Giannis.
Giannis should be thought of as a big man, not a guard
There was a viral clip of Giannis in Game 3 struggling to create in the halfcourt when matched against Blake Griffin. Shouldn’t one of the best players in the league have more moves off the bounce than this?
Bro Giannis has no bag pic.twitter.com/miGqDXp0Dx— Lemicky James is the (@InfinityEoo) June 11, 2021
Today’s era of the NBA has largely been defined by oversized ball handlers who would typically be thought of as forwards taking on the role of point guard. LeBron James and Luka Doncic are the two most obvious examples of this, but James Harden and Jimmy Butler also fit to a degree. From early in his career, former coach Jason Kidd said Giannis could be the Bucks’ point guard. This line of thinking has done a huge disservice to Giannis as people have ultimately judged him as a guard and failed to appreciate what makes him so unique.
If you think of Antetokounmpo as a big man, suddenly his lack of advanced dribble moves or three-point shooting ability become a lot less detrimental. Did anyone ever criticize Shaq for not having a killer crossover or deep shooting range?
I don’t think people realize Giannis pulling up/settling for 3s is like Shaq coming down and doing that in 2000.— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) June 11, 2021
Giannis is listed at 6’11, 242 pounds, and he feels even bigger than that because of his immense length and strength. He’s become one of the best defensive players in the league because his ability to put an imprint on the game as a help defender near the rim. While it wasn’t wrong to try out new development pathways early in his career, at this point it’s pretty obvious that Giannis should be used and viewed as a big.
If the Bucks want to make this series competitive, it starts with finding better ways to use Giannis. It starts with not putting him in a position where he’s tempted to take threes. If the Bucks don’t do it, Budenholzer will be looking for a new job in a couple weeks, and there will be a ton of pressure on everyone else within the organization.
Giannis committed to the Bucks before the season by signing his supermax deal. Now the Bucks need to commit to better supporting him and the ways that he’s used.