The Milwaukee Bucks’ collapse in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals was hardly the fault of Giannis Antetokounmpo alone. The Toronto Raptors’ four straight wins after falling behind 0-2 were more about their success than the Bucks’ struggles, and Milwaukee wouldn’t have been competitive at all without the league’s MVP.
But the public’s reaction to Antetokounmpo’s relative struggles with the Bucks’ season on the line was surprisingly muted nonetheless. He averaged just 20.5 points on 43.5% shooting in the last four games against the Raptors, failing again and again to lift an offensive attack that was built squarely around his talents.
There wasn’t one single reason behind Antetokounmpo’s offensive labors, and it bears reminding that Toronto was uniquely suited to limiting his effectiveness. But six weeks into 2019-20, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the major weakness in his game exploited to sweeping effect by the Raptors last spring may not exist anymore.
And the rest of the league should be terrified as a result.
Antetokounmpo is shooting just 31.8% from three-point range. There are currently 77 players in the league launching at least 4.5 threes per game, and his accuracy on those shots ranks ninth-worst among them.
It’s not like Antetokounmpo’s tries are of the immensely difficult variety deflating the percentages of marksmen like James Harden and Luka Doncic, either. Four of his five attempts per game have come absent a defender within six feet of him, according to NBA.com tracking data.
The vast majority of Antetokounmpo’s three-pointers look like this, with defenses willingly affording him wide-open looks.
The scary thing for the rest of the league? Antetokounmpo is suddenly knocking them down with regularity, and it seems sustainable.
Much of his subpar season-long percentage from deep can be attributed to a dreadful start. Antetokounmpo was just 4-of-23 on threes over the Bucks’ first seven games, making it easy to believe preseason expectations of improved jump-shooting were rooted most in optimism.
A two-week sample size isn’t nearly big enough to glean concrete conclusions, though, and Antetokounmpo has since proven those early-season woes a blip. After knocking down half of his eight three-point attempts in a win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night, Antetokounmpo is up to 35.6% from deep during Milwaukee’s last 15 games, accuracy just above league average.
Even more encouraging? He’s taking nearly six triples per game over that same span, evidence of Antetokounmpo’s burgeoning confidence.
The book on defending Antetokounmpo has long gone unchanged: Wall off the paint, complicate his passing reads, and – most of all – dare him to shoot from the perimeter. The Raptors rode that exact formula to the NBA Finals last May, siccing Kawhi Leonard on Antetokounmpo as Toronto help defenders offered aggressive support when necessary.
But not every team is lucky enough to possess a wing defender of Leonard’s caliber, and even if they were, Antetokounmpo’s obvious strides as a three-point shooter can render even the best individual defense moot.
If his primary defender can’t sag several feet off him from beyond the arc or go way under ball screens, just how is a player with Antetokounmpo’s length, strength, burst, and ball-handling ability supposed to be stopped from getting to the rim? There’s just no good answer if he’s consistently making defenses pay for proving his worth as a long-range shooter.
Most discussions thus far about the NBA’s best player and best team have conveniently avoided Milwaukee. But if his newfound prowess from deep proves sustainable, it’ll be Antetokounmpo and the Bucks who stake the most forceful claims for those distinctions over the season’s remainder – perhaps resulting in not just another MVP, but Milwaukee’s first title since 1970-71.
Last modified: May 8, 2020 12:35 PM UTC