When Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, caught a pass driving into the lane from Eric Bledsoe at the start of the second quarter of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, many thought that was a guaranteed layup.
Antetokounmpo went up for the layup, only to crash into Andre Igoudala, coming down hard, grabbing his right ankle.
Later, Antetokounmpo was ruled out of the game with a right ankle sprain and was seen after the game in a black boot. He likely won’t be seen on the hardwood for the rest of the series.
Leading us to ask, what has happened to the Bucks this series? Why have they and, more importantly, Antetokounmpo, struggled so much?
The Miami Heat are a mismatch for the Bucks.
The Heat have neutralized Antetokounmpo this series, which is hard to fathom considering he is on his way to a second league MVP.
The Bucks offense is run through Antetokounmpo. With the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands come sharp passes and runs by the power forward straight into the lane that almost certainly result in defenders “moving the hell out of the way,” or rushing to the perimeter to guard shooters he’s tossed the ball to on the three-point line.
But not this series.
The Heat have defended Antetokounmpo using a zone and double teams, virtually shutting down his claim to fame, his physical style of play. This series, he has been pushed into shooting mid-range jumpers, three-pointers, and free throws, something that hasn’t consistently materialized even after seven seasons in the NBA.
Up until Antetokounmpo went down with an ankle sprain, he seemed to have finally broken the Heat’s defensive zone that had worked for most of the series.
Dunks. Jumpers. He was making it all, going 8-10 from the floor. Yet in 41 trips to the free-throw line this series, Antetokounmpo is shooting just 53 percent, and 21 percent from beyond the arc.
When he left the floor Sunday, Kris Middleton and the Bucks’ surrounding cast finally found their groove, ultimately saving their season by pulling out Game 4 in overtime.
Their jumpers were finally falling and they played freer.
Once Antetokounmpo left the game, the Bucks began to hit jump shots, which forced the Heat to gravitate out of its zone defense. Spacing on the floor opened up.
Defensively they were holding their own against Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and crew, which might be a rarity for an Antetokounmpo-less Bucks defense.
I don’t know how this series will look after tonight, but something is for sure, Antetokounmpo needs to add a dependable jump shot to his game. Scoring that won’t require him to plow to the rim so often — or if he chooses to do that, he needs to make his free throws.
I’m not sure how long the Bucks’ role players can produce the free-flowing offense steadily knocking down shots. But something became pretty clear when Antetokounmpo left the floor: scoring became effortless and the Heat’s defense was scrambling.
Many teams are watching this series and taking notes on how to guard Antetokounmpo. With the Heat’s personnel, their zone and defensive scheme as a whole are proving to be effective.
Maybe if Antetokounmpo lures another superstar to Milwaukee, is traded or leaves in free agency after next season, this won’t matter as much. But in 2018 he said:
“You don’t have to have a lot of (stars). I definitely think that, because I think we have great pieces in this team, and every guy in this team knows what his role is and is having fun and is enjoying his role.”
Just be prepared to have teams guard you the way the Heat have more often.