Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, the place each weekday you’ll get a contemporary, topical column from one in every of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
So, so many issues have abruptly fallen flat this postseason. LeBron and the Lakers misplaced Anthony Davis throughout their first-round matchup towards the all-consuming hearth that’s the Suns. Nuggets famous person and MVP Nikola Jokić, one way or the other spectacular and current all 12 months lengthy, was stunningly banished to the locker room within the closing minutes of Denver’s season-ending loss. The highest-seeded Sixers, who’ve blown leads of 18 factors and 26 factors in back-to-back losses, respectively, sit on the cusp of elimination.
But with every of these gamers and groups, there’s a lot extra to the story. Los Angeles couldn’t keep wholesome, and fought to spackle issues collectively down the stretch, needing the play-in sport to even safe its spot within the opening spherical. Jokić had executed nearly every part he might—together with pushing the Nuggets previous the Blazers within the first spherical—after dropping Jamal Murray to a devastating ACL tear again in April.
Philly finds itself with far fewer excuses. However Joel Embiid is taking part in on a small meniscus tear in his proper knee that clearly hasn’t sapped Embiid’s capacity however does seem to take its toll in second halves, the place he’s been nowhere practically as efficient. His costar, Ben Simmons, is an unbelievable defender by all accounts, however he simply took fewer than 5 shot makes an attempt for the second time within the Sixers’ sequence with the Hawks, and certain isn’t the best match with Embiid the membership hoped he can be after they inked him to a max deal in 2019.
After which, on the different finish of the spectrum, there’s two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the person who logged a 34-point, 12-rebound, four-assist sport on 63% taking pictures, but was deservingly panned for his exhibiting in a seemingly disastrous 114–108 Sport 5 loss to the closely diminished Nets Tuesday.
Sure, he put up huge numbers befitting a famous person. However in contrast to the Lakers or the Nuggets, who can have not less than some motive for optimism as soon as they finally return to well being, and even the Sixers, who can bear substantial alterations to their roster after their first 12 months underneath Doc Rivers and president Daryl Morey, one thing about this potential setback would really feel notably dispiriting for Giannis and the Bucks.
Even after Nets guard James Harden exited the sequence simply seconds into Sport 1, the sequence felt a tad lopsided through three video games, as Brooklyn carried a 2–1 edge. Brooklyn then misplaced Kyrie Irving, too, after a foul ankle tweak in Sport 4, which helped the Bucks knot the matchup at two video games apiece. Then got here Sport 5, the place Harden returned to labor through his hamstring challenge to shoot 1-for-10. Between Irving’s absence and Harden’s clearly lagging, Milwaukee had a golden alternative to take management of the sequence. However moderately than take the bull by the horns, Giannis all however watched Kevin Durant take the Bucks by the antlers.
Simply two years faraway from rupturing his Achilles, the Nets star had a efficiency for the ages in Sport 5, igniting for 49 factors, 17 rebounds and 10 assists whereas carrying the load by taking part in all 48 minutes.
Antetokounmpo, then again, completed Sport 5 with an infinite box-score line however little else. As Durant lit up the Bucks like a Christmas tree, Antetokounmpo didn’t step up from his defensive task—guarding Brooklyn sharpshooter Joe Harris—to attempt to cease the 6′ 11″ scoring wizard.
It delivered to thoughts final 12 months’s postseason, by which Jimmy Butler diced up Milwaukee to the tune of 40 in a Miami win with out Giannis’s ever selecting him up on protection. “He’s the most effective help-side defenders that there [is] within the league. And that’s what he’s been doing all 12 months lengthy. … I feel you’ve acquired to essentially simply acquired to deal with what you do, because you’ve been doing all of it 12 months,” Butler said, surmising why he believed Antetokounmpo, the Defensive Participant of the Yr that season, by no means defended him that night time.
This isn’t to say the duty of stopping Durant would’ve been straightforward for Antetokounmpo. For starters, he ended up with six private fouls, anyway, even with out guarding Durant. So he may need discovered himself extra saddled with foul hassle had he been provided that problem. The Nets correctly used screens for Durant before he even crossed half court sometimes, repeatedly extending Milwaukee’s protection—which typically performs a drop protection, with middle Brook Lopez hardly ever coming above the free throw line for any motive—to new uncomfortable limits to basically pressure Lopez off the ground. And as soon as the Bucks downsized to a faster defensive lineup that had higher capacity to change, Durant had his method simply as simply. (Giannis advised reporters he wished the problem of stopping Durant for the win-or-go-home Sport 6.)
There have been fairly obtrusive points past what Antetokounmpo didn’t do on protection, although.
For starters, there was an enormous play, with slightly below two minutes left, the place he had the hobbled Harden in a one-on-one state of affairs with the rating tied at 104. Standing within the midpost on the left facet of the ground, he was confronted up towards the Nets star. Recognizing it was a mismatch, notably with Harden at far lower than 100%, Brooklyn’s Landry Shamet—tasked with guarding Khris Middleton on the perimeter—began to cheat down some to assist Harden out. Harden waved him away, saying he didn’t want the second defender.
Moderately than attempt to go across the slower, injured defender, or over the shorter defender, Antetokounmpo launched right into a turnaround, fadeaway jumper, a shot he cashed in at only a 38.5% clip in the course of the common season, based on NBA.com. (Except for letting Harden off the hook, it additionally performed into one in every of his strengths. He’s lengthy been the most effective guards at defending the publish.)
Then, with 20 seconds left and Milwaukee down by two, Middleton acquired into the paint and made a near-perfect dump-off go for Antetokounmpo. The Nets’ Jeff Inexperienced jumped, anticipating that Middleton would take the shot. So Giannis was in nice place to catch the ball and dunk it dwelling.
As a substitute, it slipped proper through his palms and fell to the ground, the place Durant grabbed it.
After the sport, on TNT’s Contained in the NBA, Charles Barkley stated he thought Antetokounmpo dropped the go as a result of he was involved about getting fouled and having to go to the road, the place he struggles.
The tip of the competition was a microcosm for the challenges with Antetokounmpo at this level in his profession. He’s a dominant defender with otherworldly athleticism, arms the size of a billboard and the peak to match. However he’s not in a standard locksmith in a shut-down cornerback form of method. So the talent feels a bit watered down in moments when the Bucks can’t cease a dominant wing participant. He’s a terror in transition, and stands out as the most unstoppable participant within the paint since Shaq. However groups counter that capacity come playoff time by walling off the painted space, trusting that he’ll overthink sufficient performs, and barrel himself into simply sufficient offensive fouls. And as somebody who’s stagnated along with his jumper, he struggles to comfortably create his personal shot when left open from midrange or the three-point line. Too usually, his performs finish just like the one with Harden. And he’s regressed significantly from the free throw line the previous two years.
All of it raises a query that appears each harsh but in addition warranted at this level: What talent has he improved upon since turning into a two-time MVP?
Maybe making an attempt to make life a bit simpler for him after the final two postseason exits, the staff tweaked its offense round him. Particularly initially of the season, after they plugged him into the dunker spot alongside the baseline—one thing the Bucks have been keen to take a short-term hit for in hopes of constructing for a better playoff ceiling. Level guard Jrue Vacation, whom Milwaukee spent huge on to improve over Eric Bledsoe, additionally figured to boost that ceiling. Which is why the Sport 5 loss to the Nets was so disheartening, and why the Milwaukee entrance workplace might must reexamine every part if the Bucks drop this sequence.
On the one hand, Antetokounmpo’s wrestle to break through isn’t uncommon. It’s effectively established that a number of the largest names in latest a long time—Jordan, LeBron, Steph, Isaiah Thomas—won their first titles at age 27. Shaq and Durant received theirs at age 28. It’s straightforward to take a look at the previous few playoff failures and suppose Antetokounmpo received’t ever break through. However Giannis, a late bloomer who hadn’t began taking part in the game till 2008—5 years earlier than he was drafted—remains to be simply 26, and might not be a completed product.
In truth, what this all means is that he’s understandably being held to the usual of a LeBron-like famous person. We’ve watched LeBron guard lesser gamers for 3 and a half quarters, however then tackle the hardest cowl for the ultimate six minutes of a sport. We’ve watched him shut out video games, even when he struggled along with his shot for the overwhelming majority of the competition. James, too, received accolades earlier than the final word postseason success adopted behind. And now followers are questioning whether or not Giannis is superior sufficient to keep away from being neutralized when it issues most.
When the video games are quick, in transition, Antetokounmpo is at his finest, Eurostepping typically, and one-dribbling his approach to the basket from half court docket different instances. (He’s additionally nice in pick-and-rolls with Middleton.) When issues gradual to a halt, although, you’ll be able to see the wheels delivering his head. When left open, he’s pondering, “Ought to I shoot, or shouldn’t I?” When he sees a path sealed off, he’s making an attempt to determine whether or not he has the pace and leverage to jam his method right into a crevice earlier than he’ll get whistled for a cost. What if he will get fouled?
However as we’ve seen with him on the line this postseason, he sometimes thinks so lengthy he runs out of time.
The box-score numbers are there. Now, he simply wants to search out methods to ship them in the important thing moments, when his restricted talent set hinders him. Till then, the criticism will solely intensify.
Extra NBA Protection:
• How the Suns Mastered the Choose-And-Roll
• Rudy Gobert’s Playoff Protection Is Higher Than Ever
• Kevin Durant’s Historic Efficiency Lifts Nets Over Bucks in Sport 5