The Milwaukee Bucks were nothing short of dominant this season, and there weren’t many counters for their best player. Can someone find a way to beat them four times in two weeks?
For a second straight season, the Milwaukee Bucks will likely finish with the best record in the league, and Giannis Antetokoumnpo will likely win the Most Valuable Player award. The Greek Freak is the engine, and the Bucks are the machine.
And no, that’s not an exaggeration. Before the season was suspended, Antetokoumnpo was averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in just 30.9 minutes a night. If the basic stats don’t widen your eyes enough read the last one again. He did that in just over 30 minutes per game.
Milwaukee outscores teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, but they also smother teams by 4.6 points per 100 when he rests. Giannis makes them historically good, but they also more than tread water without him. How do they do it? Having a ridiculously long, uber-athletic giant with the skills of a guard helps, but it takes more than him to make the apparatus function.
Offensively, the Bucks surround him with shooters at all times. From George Hill to Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee has willing shooters around its Hall of Famer as often as possible. It bears out in the numbers; of the 11 supporting Bucks with at least 600 minutes logged this season, eight have 3-point attempt rates of at least 0.400. On the whole, only three teams take 3s at a higher rate than Milwaukee.
The Greek Freak is an offensive hub, opening things up for everyone else. His blend of size, tools and skill is nearly impossible for most players to defend. Few humans have been able to contain him the last two seasons. Then, defenses have a very difficult choice to make. If a player rotates to help on the matchup nightmare, it opens up someone from deep to fire away. Teams have used all kinds of strategies to try and pick their poisons, but there’s really been no answer for the Bucks in the regular season.
The defense is also built around the team’s superstar. Giannis is truly the most versatile and dominant defender in the league, striking fear in every opponent simply with his presence. Mainly the Bucks’ philosophy is to let absolutely nothing happen at the rim. Brook Lopez has become a stout rim protector in Milwaukee, patrolling the paint with a heavy drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. Giannis acts like a free safety in those moments, rotating as a helper during Lopez’s drop while the guard is trying to hound the ball handler.
It’s risky, especially since the Bucks concede some open 3s. But two benefits arise: Antetokoumnpo makes his presence felt in every decision the offense makes, and the easiest shots in the game are neutralized. The Greek Freak doesn’t generate as many steals as you’d think with this method, but he doesn’t have to.
So the Bucks are a machine, through and through. They’re the overwhelming favorites to come out of the East, and have quality wins against some of the West’s best. In no uncertain terms, they are the NBA’s Goliath.
There is hope though. For one thing, the Bucks haven’t won a title with this group. Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors beat them in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, showing chinks in the armor. That Raptors team doesn’t have its elite closer anymore, but it did shed some light on how to beat the Bucks in other ways.
So how do you beat the Milwaukee Bucks in a playoff series?
Try to wear Giannis Antetokounmpo down: This may sound traditionalist, but it’ll be most teams’ best shots at winning a series. Giannis’ game is built on overpowering his opponent, an often effective strategy, but it can work against him.
The Bucks run Antetokoumnpo in short bursts, designed to maximize his output on a per-minute basis. Blowing opponents out of the water helps keep his workload down too, but he has yet to play more than 39 minutes in a game this season. Milwaukee is disciplined with how much he plays. That will likely be the nightly minimum for Giannis in the playoffs, a big jump from his 30.9 average in the regular season. There’s likely to be some diminishing returns from that jump, especially physically.
That’s where teams may be able to use his strengths to their advantage. If they get extra physical with him from the get-go, it may cause him extra fatigue as the game (and series) wears on. There’s a chance that he becomes less of a wrecking ball on offense, and that more players will be able to defend him in the latter stages of a game.
Granted, even a tired Giannis can still bully most of the league. But every possession counts in the playoffs, and if you can survive with Serge Ibaka or Gordon Hayward on him for just one play here or there, that starts to add up. The more players that can check him without being mauled, the more the math tilts in David’s favor against Goliath.
Figure out who is going to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo: I preface this with the caveat that no one is “stopping” Giannis Antetokoumnpo anytime soon. But finding the right players to defend him will be integral in any challenger’s efforts. I am also well aware of how few people exist who can actually defend him without looking like high schoolers. There aren’t many. But those who do exist provide a blueprint for the rest of the league.
Kawhi Leonard was Toronto’s solution. Starting in Game 3 of the Raptors-Bucks series, Leonard spent a lot more time on the Greek Freak, and the results tilted more in Toronto’s favor. Now that Leonard plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors will have to look elsewhere.
Joel Embiid has experience making Giannis uncomfortable. In their last two meetings, Embiid has gotten the upper hand when Antetokoumnpo attacks him. He has enough size and mobility to check the reigning MVP; the struggles for Philly come when he gets subbed out.
That was a major factor in the Philadelphia 76ers signing Al Horford, another person who can make Giannis sweat. The Boston Celtics won Game 1 of their conference semifinal series with Milwaukee last season, and Horford’s defense on him was a major reason why. Giannis eventually figured out a solution, but not easily.
The common denominator between those three is a blend of above-average size, strength and mobility. Other players on East contenders who could potentially fit the archetype include Ben Simmons, Pascal Siakam, and Bam Adebayo. Should a Horford-less Boston squad make it far enough to square off with Giannis, it will have an especially tough time defending him unless Tatum or Jaylen Brown takes another leap.
Hope you get lucky: A return to basketball in the middle of a pandemic is sure to have some extra variance. It’s pretty likely that a player or players from the top teams have some sort of bad luck, either by testing positive for the virus, getting hurt because of rust from the long hiatus, or bad shooting.
The first two concerns are equal for all teams, so let’s just focus on the Bucks-adjacent one. Shooting variance will play an enormous part in every playoff series, especially for a team buoyed by 3-point marksmen. After all, Leonard was not the sole reason Toronto turned the tides in that ECF series last season; Fred VanVleet’s 3-point shooting numbers went from ice-cold (2-for-11) to red hot (14-for-17) after the birth of his child.
That can work the other way too. If Giannis misses a few 3s in a row, we know damn well that his defender will sag off. The 76ers did this exact thing in their Christmas Day bout with Milwaukee, and the Greek Freak struggled mightily to get anything going. The chances of him going 0-for-7 from deep multiple times in a series probably aren’t high, but teams are unlikely to respect his shot until he proves it.
Antetokoumnpo isn’t the only Buck at risk of a cold spell. Eric Bledsoe has shot a putrid 25.5 percent on 3s in his playoff career (28-for-109), and has been especially disappointing the last two postseasons for Milwaukee. George Hill is unlikely to maintain his league-leading clip of 48.0 percent from beyond the arc. Khris Middleton, who didn’t touch a basketball for months, may find it difficult to be elite from every part of the court like he was for the bulk of 2019-20. Brook Lopez shot the second-worst clip among volume 3-point shooters this year (29.6 percent).
3-point shooting fluctuates naturally, especially in a playoff setting. And if Giannis finds it difficult to create out there, it may become harder to make stuff happen in the paint. The second Bledsoe goes cold again, opponents will sag off of him. If two of Giannis, Lopez and Bledsoe are broke at a time, defending the Bucks becomes a little bit easier.
All that being said, Milwaukee is still a strong favorite to come out of the East. They have an army and a Hulk. But there are battles that challengers can punch above their weight in. If those start to add up, the tide starts to turn.