Welcome to morning target practice, where every day of the week you will receive an up-to-date and current column from one of the SI.comNBA Writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
So a lot of things have abruptly failed 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 throughout the year, was astonishingly banished to the locker room in the final minutes of Denver’s season-ending loss. The seeded Sixers, who have lost 18 points and 26 points in back-to-back losses, respectively, are on the cusp of elimination.
However, with each of those players and teams, there is much more to the story. Los Angeles couldn’t stay healthy and struggled to put things together down the stretch, needing the entry game to secure their spot in the first 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 in April.
Philadelphia is faced with far fewer excuses. But Joel Embiid is playing with a small meniscus tear in his right knee that obviously hasn’t sapped Embiid’s ability, but it seems to take its toll in the second halves, where it hasn’t been as effective anywhere. His co-star, Ben Simmons, is an incredible defender in every way, but he only made fewer than five shot attempts for the second time in the Sixers’ series with the Hawks, and he probably doesn’t quite fit the Embiid the club expected. It would be when they signed him to a maximum deal in 2019.
And then at the other end of the spectrum is the league’s two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man who posted a game of 34 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists on 63% shooting but was deservedly criticized. for his performance in a seemingly disastrous 114-108 Game 5 loss to the Nets on Tuesday.
Yes, he got big numbers befitting a superstar. But unlike the Lakers or the Nuggets, who may have at least some reason for optimism once they finally regain health, or even the Sixers, who may suffer substantial roster alterations after their first year under Doc Rivers and President Daryl Morey, something about this possible setback would be particularly daunting for Giannis and the Bucks.
Even after Nets guard James Harden exited the series just seconds after Game 1, the series felt a bit off-balance across three games as Brooklyn led 2-1. Brooklyn then lost Kyrie Irving as well, after a bad ankle pinch in Game 4, which helped the Bucks tie the showdown at two games apiece. Then came Game 5, where Harden went back to work through his hamstring problem to shoot 1 of 10. Between Irving’s absence and Harden’s clearly lagging behind, Milwaukee had a golden opportunity to take control. of the series. But instead of taking the bull by the horns, Giannis almost saw Kevin Durant take the Bucks by the horns.
Just two years after his Achilles tendon ruptured, the Nets star had an all-age performance in Game 5, firing for 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists as he carried the load playing all 48 minutes.
Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, finished Game 5 with a huge box score line, but little else. As Durant lit the Bucks like a Christmas tree, Antetokounmpo did not step forward in his defensive assignment – to protect Brooklyn sniper Joe Harris – to try to stop the wizard from scoring at 6’11 “.
It brought to mind last year’s postseason, in which Jimmy Butler defeated Milwaukee to the tune of 40 in a Miami win without Giannis getting it back on defense. “He is one of the best advocates on the helping side out there. [is] in the league. And that’s what he’s been doing all year. … I think you really have to focus on what you do, since you’ve been doing it all year. ” Butler said, guessing why he believed Antetokounmpo, the Defensive Player of the Year that season, never defended him that night.
This is not to say that the task of stopping Durant would have been easy for Antetokounmpo. For starters, he ended up with six personal fouls, anyway, even without scoring Durant. So he might have found himself more fraught with problems if he had been given that challenge. The Nets wisely used screens for Durant before he crossed the middle of the court at times, regularly extending the Milwaukee defense – which generally plays fall coverage, with center Brook Lopez rarely overstepping the free throw line for whatever reason – to uncomfortable new limits to essentially force Lopez off the court. And once the Bucks downsized to a faster defensive lineup that had a better ability to switch, Durant just as easily got away with it. (Giannis told reporters that he wanted the challenge of stopping Durant for Game 6 from winning or going home.)
However, there were pretty glaring problems beyond what Antetokounmpo didn’t do on defense.
For starters, there was a great play, with just under two minutes to go, where he had Harden limping into a one-on-one scenario with the score tied at 104. Standing at the middle post on the left side of the court , faced the Nets star. Recognizing that it was a mismatch, particularly with Harden at much less than 100%, Brooklyn’s Landry Shamet, tasked with protecting Khris Middleton on the perimeter, began to mislead some into helping Harden. Harden fired him, saying he didn’t need the second defender.
Rather than trying to circle the slowest and most injured defender, or over the shorter defender, Antetokounmpo threw a long jump shot, a shot he achieved with just a 38.5% clip during the regular season, according to NBA.com. (Aside from letting Harden get out of trouble, he also played in one of his strengths. He has long been one of the best shooting guards in post defense.)
Then, with 20 seconds left and Milwaukee down by two, Middleton got into the paint and made a near-perfect pass to Antetokounmpo. The Nets’ Jeff Green jumped, anticipating Middleton would take the shot. So Giannis was in a great position to catch the ball and dunk it.
Instead, it slipped between her hands and fell to the ground, where Durant grabbed it.
After the game, on TNT Inside the NBACharles Barkley said he thought Antetokounmpo dropped the pass because he was worried about being fouled and having to go to the line, where he is in trouble.
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 height to match. But he is not in a traditional locksmith in some kind of closed corner. So the skill feels a bit watered down at times when the Bucks can’t stop a dominant wing player. He is a terror in transition and may be the most unstoppable player in the paint since Shaq. But teams counter that ability when the playoffs come by closing off the painted area, trusting that he will overthink the plays and jump in enough offensive fouls. And as someone who is stuck with their jump shot, they struggle to comfortably create their own shot when left open from mid-range or from the three-point line. Too often, his works end up like Harden’s. And he has regressed considerably from the free throw line in the last two years.
It all raises a question that seems tough but also justified at this point: What skill has he improved since he became a two-time MVP?
Perhaps trying to make life a little easier for him after the last two postseason outings, the team tweaked their offense around him. Especially early in the season, when he was placed in the dunk spot along the baseline, something the Bucks were willing to take a short-term hit from in hopes of hitting a higher ceiling in the losers. playoffs. Point guard Jrue Holiday, whom Milwaukee spent a lot to improve on Eric Bledsoe, also thought about raising that ceiling. That’s why the Game 5 loss to the Nets was so daunting, and why Milwaukee headquarters may need to reexamine everything if the Bucks drop this series.
For one thing, Antetokounmpo’s struggle to break through is not unusual. It is well established that some of the biggest names of the past decades (Jordan, LeBron, Steph, Isaiah Thomas)won his first titles at age 27. Shaq and Durant won theirs at age 28. It’s easy to see the latest playoff glitches and think Antetokounmpo will never break through. But Giannis, a latecomer who hadn’t started playing the sport until 2008, five years before his recruitment, is still 26 years old and may not be a finished product.
Truth be told, what this all means is that it is understandable that he remains at the level of a LeBron-like superstar. We’ve seen LeBron defend the minor players for three-and-a-half quarters, but then he faces the toughest coverage during the last six minutes of a game. We’ve seen him close games, even if he struggled with his shooting for the vast majority of the contest. James also earned accolades before the biggest postseason success followed. And now fans are wondering if Giannis is superior enough to avoid being neutralized when it matters most.
When games are fast, in transition, Antetokounmpo is at his best, Eurostepping at times and dribbling towards the basket from midfield at other times. (He’s also great on pick-and-rolls with Middleton.) However, when things come to a standstill, you can see the wheels spinning in his head. When left open, you think, “Should I shoot or not?” When you see a closed road, you are trying to figure out if you have the speed and leverage to get stuck in a crevasse before being asked for a load. What if you need them?
But as we’ve seen with him on the line this postseason, he occasionally thinks so much that time is running out.
The box score numbers are there. Now, you only need to find ways to deliver on them at key moments, when your limited skill set gets in the way. Until then, the criticism will only intensify.
More NBA coverage:
• How the Suns Dominated Pick-and-Roll
• Rudy Gobert’s playoff defense is better than ever
• Kevin Durant’s historic performance raises the nets over the Bucks in Game 5
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.