The Milwaukee Bucks’ shootaround Friday morning concluded with a three-point competition.
A trio of players—Sterling Brown, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova—participated in a best out of five at every spot around the perimeter. As each of them fired away, there was, of course, some playful jabbing, though nobody distracted one another.
Coming into Cleveland, Brown and Hill were each knocking down over 36 percent of their three-point attempts. But it was Ilyasova—the longest-tenured player of the group—who earned bragging rights with an (unofficial) contest win. Brown laughed and yelled after seeing the Turkish veteran drill the shots.
“Make ‘em in the game, Ers!”
Before taking the floor at Quicken Loans Arena three nights ago, Ilyasova had been uncharacteristically off the mark shooting from deep. In the preceding seven games, he took 20 threes and converted on just four of them. The slump took Ilyasova’s three-point percentage down to 32.8 percent, well below his career average of 36.5.
Brown’s comment had no ill-will intended towards Ilyasova, a teammate that the Bucks absolutely love in their locker room. It could be used for some encouragement, though—and it was.
For just the third time this season, Ilyasova hit three shots from beyond the arc in a dominant win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking his three-point percentage up by three points to a figure that suits him more naturally.
Asked pre-game about his recent struggles, Basketball Insiders found that Ilyasova won’t dwell on one part of a game, especially when he can help in other areas.
“Sometimes you have to accept your roles. Things have changed,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “When you see my game, it’s just trying to help to get the team the win any way I can.
“Sometimes, you knock down those shots. Sometimes, you’re not. But it’s not all about can I make those shots. I think it’s all about just being productive, do something the other players cannot do.”
Being more aggressive defensively, finding the right spots, providing extra possessions, taking charges—these are the “different things” Ilyasova is trying to focus on when he’s playing the game.
There’s statistical evidence to support that last area. Ilyasova ranks second in the NBA with 12 charges drawn. Perhaps what’s most impressive about this figure is that he’s done so in 477 total minutes. Compared to Kyle Lowry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the league leaders with 13, that’s literally half of their playing time.
That gets us to our next point—Ilyasova isn’t seeing much of the floor at all. For the first time since his rookie season 12 years ago in Milwaukee, he is playing less than 20 minutes per game. He’s hovering right around that mark, yet it’s still significantly less action than his previous stops in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Ilyasova acknowledged the decreased minutes as a potential reason for his inconsistent offensive production, but he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the Bucks.
“It’s all about [fitting in],” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, we have Giannis [Antetokoumpo] – sometimes he plays more than 30 minutes a game, which is okay with me anytime, so it’s not a really big deal. I’m here just to help the team and the wins.
“And the coach just uses [me] whatever he uses the way he sees fit. I’m really cool with that. If we’re winning the games, it’s all good.”
This season has been a reunion for Ilyasova and Giannis. The two were teammates when the Greek Freak came into the NBA as a teenage prospect with raw talent.
Having been around Ilyasova at the beginning of his career, Giannis is ecstatic to have the 31-year-old around again in Milwaukee.
“I think he’s doing a great job being aggressive on the defensive end, crashing the boards, knocking down open shots,” Giannis said after the win in Cleveland.
“He’s so funny in the locker room. He’s just a great guy. Great energy. Plays it our way, plays hard. And he’s unselfish. He plays for the team. He does whatever it takes to help his team win and he’s just fun to be around. He’s basically one of my closest guys on the team.”
Reciprocating his teammate’s compliments, Ilyasova has greatly noticed the strides that the All-Star forward has made since his first couple of seasons.
“He’s proved a lot, you know? On the floor and off the court, as well,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders of Giannis. “When I [had] seen him first, he obviously gained a lot of weight. He was skinnier then what he [is] right now, way skinny.
“But now he’s improved a lot – the vision, all aspects of basketball. Because I think back in the day, it was more like a try to kinda penetrate and score, now he’s just kinda trying to pass. He plays real decent defense. Like I said, he’s just improved overall.”
As Giannis has gotten better, so have the Bucks. Albeit the coaching situation has been everything but concrete in the last few years, the organization might have finally found real stability with its hiring of Mike Budenholzer.
For starters, Milwaukee is playing a modern-era style of basketball. The goal is to make threes and get stops with a lengthy, versatile roster comprised of players who can defend and shoot. Efficiency and toughness seem to be the two staples to Budenholzer’s methods, and they’re working.
While Giannis is at the center of the Bucks’ success as a scorer and as a willing passer, which Budenholzer has encouraged him to be, it isn’t just about the Greek Freak.
“It’s allowed me to take my next step, but I feel like right now we’re playing so good and the offense fits this team and as a team we’re taking the next step,” Giannis said. “I feel everybody can come in and contribute and the offense that Coach Bud has us running makes my teammates great, so I’m really happy about that.
“I know that everybody can come in and touch the ball, get some energy of the ball, get some open shots, get some open threes, play some defense. It’s just fun playing in this system.”
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Bucks rank second in offensive rating (114.3) and seventh in defensive rating (106.1). They lead the league in three-point makes per game (14.1) and have held their competition to a league-low 43.7 field goal percentage from the field.
This is Ilyasova’s second straight season playing for Budenholzer in some capacity. He played 72 games under the veteran head coach during his time with the Hawks, so seeing this success in Milwaukee isn’t surprising one bit.
“He gives you a lot of freedom to play, just kinda be their own [player] and create some stuff. We really play open basketball,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders.
“Just kinda ball movement, try to [find] the open man and then shoot a lot of three-point shots. The way that basketball is going right now, it’s just a lot of teams just kinda trying to do the same thing – play small and just play faster.”
Recently, the Bucks decided to bolster their roster with a couple of veteran additions, George Hill and Jason Smith. Both guys have played against Ilyasova in meaningful games. With Smith, particularly, it was in the postseason.
Ilyasova feels their experiences will bring a necessary element to a team striving for big things come mid-April and, hopefully, beyond. With five years of playoff experience under his belt, he believes that home court advantage can be critical.
It’s clear that the Bucks’ aspirations are high, as are many teams’ hopes in the Eastern Conference. Looking at the top five, the gap between the top of the mountain and middle of the pack is a mere three-and-a-half games.
It’s early, but Milwaukee’s loss in Indiana was a bit of a stinger as far as the standings go. The team got back on track with a convincing win over the Cavaliers and will aim to close this brief Central Division road trip out on a high note against the Detroit Pistons.
“It’s a lot of games to play,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “It’s not easy to just come up and kinda assume you know you’re gonna win those games. You have to come up and give your 110 percent to win the games.
“It doesn’t even matter – even same game when you play against Cleveland, all those teams below the .500 [mark] right now – you have to come up and put [everything] on the line to win the games.”
Pose a question about the general favorites to come out of the East and you’ll probably hear the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the list.
Not too many seem to hold the Bucks in the same regard as those three. Ilyasova admits that it can provide a little extra motivation to prove that they do belong in that conversation.
“I think we have really good talent on the team,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Our expectations [are] high. For us, just being in the playoffs, that’s not a goal no more, just go farther.”
“Our goal is always being a championship-caliber team, but before we reach that it’s just first to reach the playoffs. We have to set the goals, not just kinda looking forward to it. Obviously, winning the most games we can and go with it.”