USA TODAY US Edition
Nets have yet to Fear the (Bucks’) Deer
A basketball game isn’t won by a single player.
But a single player can have a winning impact on the outcome.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to have a bigger impact in Games 3 and 4 of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Nets.
He doesn’t need to do it by himself. He needs help.
But Antetokounmpo needs to be better if Milwaukee wants to get back in this lopsided series, which the Nets lead 2-0 after Monday’s 125-86 thumping.
He is the two-time MVP, the face of the franchise who signed him to a $228.2 million contract that kicks in next season.
With that comes an expectation that he will show up big in the team’s most important games.
Antetokounmpo had a quiet 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in Game 2
For the series, he averages 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while shooting 61.5% from the field, 25% on 3pointers and 20% from the foul line.
While the sample size is small – but that’s all we have to work with – it’s trending in the same direction as Milwaukee’s playoff exits in 2020 and 2019.
The opponent devises a defensive game plan that limits Antetokounmpo’s effectiveness.
In a second-round loss to Miami last season and a conference finals loss to Toronto two seasons ago, Antetokounmpo’s offensive stats and efficiency rating dipped.
Following the Game 2 loss, Antetokounmpo scanned the box score and noticed his 15 shot attempts.
“Got to be more aggressive,” he said. “Got to get to my spots more. That’s pretty much it.”
Antetokounmpo is 17-for-18 at the rim and 21-for-25 in the paint. But outside of the paint, he is just 3-for-13.
While nearly unstoppable driving to the basket, Brooklyn has tried to limit his attacks on the rim and entice him to shoot jump shots. That’s not a secret strategy. Every team wants to keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint and make him beat you with jumpers.
That isn’t all on Antetokounmpo. The Bucks shot 44.3% from the field and 24.6% on 3-pointers in the first two games. Khris Middleton is 3-for-13 on 3s and has attempted just two free throws. Jrue Holiday and Bryn Forbes are at 33.3% on 3s, P.J. Tucker 1-for-5 and Bobby Portis 0-for-3 from that distance.
“There’s certain places we want to attack, certain guys we want to attack with,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We need Giannis to be aggressive. He needs space to operate and work. It’s something we’ve been doing all year. We’ve just got to work on it, make the spacing a little bit better for him, for Jrue, for Khris.”
Brooklyn switches often on defense, taking Milwaukee out of its offensive sets and forcing it into one-on-one situations, bad shots and turnovers.
Middleton and Holiday acknowledged Milwaukee strayed from its offense.
“I really feel like we need to play with the pass and really get to our shots,” Holiday said. “We’ve got to play for each other a little bit more.”
Play with the pass is a message that has been instilled.
Said Middleton: “We’ve still got to find a way to be aggressive, drive the ball and play with the pass a little bit more.”
The Bucks will have had two full days plus a portion of another day before Game 3 on Thursday in Milwaukee (7:30 ET, ESPN). Better player and ball movement and improved spacing are worth watching the remainder of the series.
The Bucks were disappointed in the outcomes, but they weren’t demoralized. While everyone outside of the Bucks organization thinks the series is over, Budenholzer took the pragmatic coach’s approach: The Nets won the first two games at home, now it’s Milwaukee’s turn to defend home court. A loss is a loss, whether by one point or 40 points, he reasoned, and the goal is to find a way to get better and win the next game with home-court advantage.
“You’ve got to have a short-term memory. … In the locker room, there’s a lot of great leadership there,” Budenholzer said, “and I think the guys will respond appropriately.”
Antetokounmpo said the frustration goes away quickly.
“I’m not low,” he said. “Just keep doing what I’m doing, trusting my work, keep trusting my teammates, keep believing in the team, keep believing in the habits we built all year and hopefully in Game 3 we get a win.”
It starts with Antetokounmpo.