Hey all, back again this week with another check-in on the evolving stories from around the NBA.
This week kicked off with an amusing comment from Houston Rockets guard, James Harden, who essentially labeled leading (and rival) MVP candidate Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo ‘a seven-foot-run-and-dunk-guy’.
What Harden is defining as “skill” in regards to Giannis is a debate for another day. But it sure does take smarts, luck, physicality, help and a heavy dose of skill to get anywhere close to slowing him down.
With the Bucks steamrolling their way to a historic finish, it got me wondering: What does it actually take to stop the 6’11”, 242-pound ‘Greek Freak’?
Before we get to that, in case you missed my 5 questions from last week, here they are:
can it be done?
Fresh off a strong performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 28 at home in Milwaukee—the Bucks won 133-86 and Giannis tallied 32 points and 13 rebounds—it’s pretty evident that Giannis’s size, power and athleticism is nearly impossible to guard in most situations, be it in the pick-and-roll, post up or in isolation.
And then, as if on cue, Giannis dropped another absolute monster line (in just 35 minutes) Sunday night:
In sum, there aren’t too many have much success with this whole concept of defending Antetokounmpo. Nonetheless, with teams now gaining a sense of their matchups in the postseason, it makes sense to search for the handful of times Giannis was indeed ‘slowed down’ by opponents.
Per NBA Advanced stats, in 45 victories this season, Giannis has taken 61.8 percent of his shots from 10 ft or less, shooting them at a 68.1 percent clip. Only 29.0 percent of his shots have come from pull-up range at a more moderate 37.6 percent clip.
On a small sample size of seven losses, however, Giannis has taken 68.1 percent of his shots from 10 ft or less and made them at a slightly lower 60.4 percent clip. In addition, 25.2 percent of his shots have come from pull-up range, but at a much poorer 19.5 percent clip.
At first glance, these numbers look rather similar, but the optics tell a different story.
On days when Giannis gets his way at the rim, there is a tendency to also take more pull-up shots and make them. Whereas, on days where he sees more physicality close to the rim, Giannis becomes a bit more tentative with his jump shot, bricking more than average especially from deep.
One team to have made it ‘harder’ for Giannis—during this Christmas day victory over the Bucks 121-109 on December 25—is his old foil Philadelphia 76ers and their lineup featuring length and above-average physicality:
For most of the night, the assignment went to 7’0”, 280-pound center Joel Embiid.
By making it especially physical for Giannis at the rim, Embiid and some timely help defense forced him to take a number of pull-ups from mid-range and the 3-point line. Lack of success at the rim led Antetokounmpo to become slightly more tentative with his jump shot, leading to a putrid 0-7 from range and 8-27 overall for the game.
A similar scheme was employed by the Toronto Raptors to frustrate Giannis in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. That helped them come from behind and win the round 4-2.
A highly physical Kahwi Leonard, with help from center Marc Gasol and forward Pascal Siakam, held Giannis to a combined 43.4 percent from the field over the final four games of the series.
Of course, while slowing down Giannis is an important factor, cutting off his passing lanes and quickly recovering to close out the perimeter is a must to give any opponent a fighting chance to hang in games with the Bucks.
Or, maybe you just need to be one of the few lucky teams to have Kawhi Leonard or Joel Embiid.
CAN KHRIS MIDDLETON BE CONSIDERED A BONA FIDE STAR?
You betcha! While Giannis has been the star and centerpiece of the Bucks offense, forward Khris Middleton has played the role of more-than-stellar sidekick.
Middleton has quietly upped his game this year, averaging 21.1 points per game in fewer minutes (compared to 18.3 points per game in 2018-19) while shooting a scorching 50.8 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from the arc and 90.7 percent from the charity stripe, all huge improvements from last season.
He is also averaging 6.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, cementing his status as a bona fide star on a strong Bucks team.
And it’s all coming together more naturally for the lanky 6’7” forward this year. To quote this piece by Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com:
Take Middleton, a player who traditionally preferred to know how and where his shots materialize in the half court. Initially slow to acclimate to the staff’s more improvisational read-oriented system, Middleton often got lost in the offense.
This season, he and Budenholzer have met halfway: Middleton now plays with more intuition, while his coach has grown more flexible and willing to work in some Middleton-friendly sets — a middle pick-and-roll here, an iso from the mid-post there. For those who haven’t paid attention, Middleton has nearly doubled his win shares per 48 minutes this season.
Oh, and if you think, Middleton’s success is solely attributable to the space Giannis creates on the floor for him, just watch these highlights from his performance against the Washington Wizards on January 28 during the Bucks’ 151-131 beat down:
Playing without Giannis in the game, Middleton tallied 51 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists while shooting 16-26 from the field, 7-10 from the 3-point line and 12-12 from the free-throw line.
Need I say more?
IS IT TOO EARLY TO CALL THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR?
With the race for the Rookie of the Year heating up, two players have unquestionably risen to the top of the list: Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant and New Orleans Pelicans forward, Zion Williamson.
For those who missed my article from last week, I compared Williamson to a rookie Shaquille O’neal.
While both Zion and Ja are generational talents with great on-court IQ and unbelievable energy and hops, Morant has played in 54 games this season to Williamson’s 14.
Granted, if Williamson stays healthy, he will have another 23 games under his belt by the time the season finishes, but is it still fair to compare the two?
Morant’s Grizzlies currently have a grip on the eighth spot in a tough Western conference while Williamson’s Pelicans still remain close on their heels. Maybe the winner of that race will have an advantage in the ROY voting?
Still doesn’t seem very fair to Morant when he and his Grizzlies have had the longevity factor all year.
If Morant’s recent performance against Lebron James and the Lakers are any indication of things to come, I believe I’ve already made my choice for tops in the league.
Morant tallied an exceptional 27 points (10-16 from the field), 6 rebounds and 14 assists to lead the Grizzlies to a resounding 105-88 victory over the Lakers at home on February 29.
DOES ANYBODY HAVE A FIRM GRIP ON THE EIGHTH SEED?
Speaking of the final spot in the West’s playoff race, a quick eyeball test of schedules gives the Grizzlies an edge over the Pelicans (2.5 games back) with Memphis playing 6 of its next 10 against opponents with losing records.
The Pelicans, on the other hand, have a marginally tougher schedule, with 5 of their next 10 against opponents boasting records above .500.
When looking at the last 10 games, however, a different story emerges. The Pelicans have been surging, winning 6 of their last 10, while the Grizzlies have only managed to win 3 over the same period.
Add the Portland Trailblazers (currently 3.5 games back) to the mix, and things suddenly become even more exciting. For more on the Trailblazers, check out this detailed feature by TBW’s Adam Spinella:
If I had to have a go at this stage, I’d say the Grizzlies will hold on. TBW Editor In Chief Joel C. Cordes is taking the Pelicans while his “Basketball by Association” co-host Arky Shea sides with me and the Grizz:
HAVE THE MAVS FOUND THEIR SECRET SAUCE?
Dallas Mavericks’ fans undoubtedly have plenty to be excited about, but now young stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have finally found their stride, complementing each other on offense and powering some key victories down the stretch.
By Porzingis’s own admission after the Mavericks beat the San Antonio Spurs 109-103 on February 26, the two are working well together of the pick-and-roll:
“It’s just experience playing with each other and getting to know each other and little details about the game,” Porzingis said of playing with Doncic. “I feel like also me playing at the five now more I’m more involved with him in the pick and rolls and not standing around on the perimeter as much. I’m more involved rolling, popping (and) then I have the option to pick what I want to do and play off of Luka. We have a better rhythm now.”
Porzingis was transcendent even without Doncic on Sunday night versus the slumping Minnesota Timberwolves:
But is this good enough to take the Mavs deep in the playoffs? Unlikely for now.
To build on this piece by TBW colleague Huw Hopkins, where he credits the team’s very average defense for a lack of sustainable success, the Mavericks don’t boast a great record (9-15) against winning teams either.
Even if the Mavs do hold onto their 7th spot in the playoffs, it looks highly unlikely that they will be able to climb out of the first round, especially against a quality opponent in the Denver Nuggets.
IS TATUM FOR REAL?
Boston Celtics guard, Jayson Tatum has really come alive off late.
Per NBA.com Advanced stats, Tatum scored three straight 30+ point games in February, all while shooting 60+ percent from the floor. Oh, the last Celtics player to do this was Kevin McHale back in 1987.
Boasting a 41-18 record (good for second in the East), the Celtics have a winning 13-11 mark against teams with a .500 record or better and are 7-3 in their last 10 games.
All said and done, the Celtics seem serious about making some noise in the postseason and Tatum is undoubtedly leading the charge.
Jayson Tatum is ascending, and this all looks very sustainable.
Stats accurate as of March 1.
Sid is a TBW staff writer who was born and raised in India. His fandom is a testament to the ever-widening reach of the NBA. Always rooting for the underdog player and/or team, Sid has lived through many exhilarating ups and frustrating downs as a New York Knicks fan for nearly two decades.