The NBA’s two best defensive teams faced off on Monday night. The game wasn’t nationally televised, so you may have missed it if you didn’t have NBA League Pass. Heck, with how it can struggle with connectivity issues from time to time, you might’ve missed it even if you did have League Pass.
I’d recommend catching some highlights at the very least, but I’ll present you with the two most important factoids of that game.
- The Milwaukee Bucks edged out the Utah Jazz, 122-118, further solidifying themselves as the best team in the Eastern Conference (14-3), and…
- Giannis Antetokounmpo had the most productive game of his NBA career, dropping 50 points, 14 rebounds, six assists (with no turnovers), and two steals
You would think that a game featuring the reigning MVP against a top-tier defense would draw some attention. You’d especially hope that Giannis would garner endless praise after slapping up 50-14-6-2.
But yet …
Or that the MVP put up 50-14-6 to lead his team to their 8th straight win and best record in the East and these are ESPN’s NBA headlines. https://t.co/3JVfIFfTWs pic.twitter.com/sLh997roHg
— Mike Phillips (@Mikey_Phillips) November 26, 2019
There are a ton of interesting storylines happening around the NBA this year, but one would still think that elite teams with elite players would top the list on intrigue. The two Los Angeles teams are getting that respect. The Boston Celtics (get well soon, Kemba!) are getting that. The Bucks are not, and that needs to change.
Things in Milwaukee start, as always, with Giannis, and this year, the reigning MVP has been better than ever. This is a genuinely terrifying development. Giannis set the NBA world on fire last season, leading the Bucks to 60 wins and stuffing the stat sheet in the process — 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game leading to the first MVP award of his career.
The numbers are somehow better this season. He’s boasting career-highs in points (31.1), rebounds (13.9), assists (6.4), and steals (1.6) while also swatting away 1.3 shots. Nobody else in league history has matched those benchmarks.
But wait, there’s more.
Giannis is also posting a career-high in two-point percentage (64.3), thanks to, somehow, improved efficiency at the rim. Via Basketball-Reference, Giannis is converting 83.1 percent of his shots inside of three feet. He’s become a “more diverse driver” as SB Nation’s Mike Prada laid out last week.
Here’s an example. Guys his size aren’t supposed to execute Eurosteps this easily.
Here, you can see a bit of variance. Instead of going with his usual Euro, Giannis draws out his gather and continues to his left, essentially out-stepping the contest.
The scariest part of Giannis’ offensive development, though, has nothing to do with what he’s doing at the rim or as a guy who can put the ball on the deck. Instead, it’s that he’s starting to get comfortable beyond the arc.
He’s chipped away some of his longer mid-range attempts for three pointers. His three-point rate (23.3) is seven percentage points higher than it was last season. His 4.7 attempts are easily a career-high, and his efficiency has risen from 25.6 percent last year to 30 percent this year.
As we’ve seen in Philadelphia, being willing to take threes is half the battle. Giannis has no trouble letting it fly now. He clearly isn’t a sniper, but that confidence allows him to become truly unguardable when his shot is dropping. It dropped on Monday night, with him shooting 3-for-8 (37.5 percent) from three.
Currently, the Bucks are the only team in the NBA that rank in the top five of offensive and defensive rating. Giannis obviously makes the system go on both ends. The pressure he puts on the rim opens up the floor for three-point shooters. His length allows him to disrupt enemy offenses all over the floor — he can alter shots at the rim just as easily as he can be a menace in passing lanes.
But of course, Giannis can’t do it all alone. And so far this year, his supporting cast has been awfully good.
Eric Bledsoe worked through an early rib injury and hasn’t had much of an issue puncturing defenses. He’s averaging a shade over 17 points per game on the season, with a bump coming since Khris Middleton picked up an injury that has cost him the last seven games. In that time, Bledsoe is averaging just under 19 points a night. Bledsoe hasn’t quite matched his All-Defense level from last season, but he’s still been a menace at the point of attack in Milwaukee’s “drop” defense. He remains effective at navigating screens and funneling ball-handlers into Milwaukee’s bigs.
That big is usually Brook Lopez, who still remains one of the NBA’s most effective rim deterrents. Opponents are shooting just 45.7 percent on non-post-up rim attempts, via Synergy. Lopez’s length, as well as his understanding of positioning, helps him shut down drivers.
Milwaukee’s perimeter players need to be able to hit shots when they get looks thanks to their MVP, and so far, those guys have delivered. George Hill is currently shooting 47.9 percent from deep and an absurd 50 percent off of passes from Giannis. Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver, a pair of summer free agent additions, are both drilling 39 percent of their threes on over four attempts per night.
Even the youth are showing some flashes. Donte DiVincenzo has been pick-sixing dudes to death during the Bucks’ current eight-game winning streak. His ability to “split the difference” — play between two players as the rest of the defense rotates down — has made him a nightmare for anyone trying to make skip passes. Heck, no pass is really safe around him.
Sterling Brown remains a somewhat reckless ball of energy that can knock down triples. Pat Connaughton is starting to find his stroke from three after a cold start to the season.
The Bucks aren’t just good, they’ve been, at worst, the second best team in the NBA. Giannis won an MVP and looks better on both ends. The team itself is still humming without their second star in Middleton — who says he’s going to return on Wednesday night — and with Malcolm Brogdon producing like a borderline All-Star in Indiana.
It’s understandable that some in the NBA world are in wait-and-see mode with the Bucks. They lost to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in deflating fashion last season, and the biggest questions around the Bucks still remain: Is the supporting cast around Giannis good enough to win a title? If they aren’t, how long will Giannis be a Buck?
Those are valid questions that will be answered soon enough. For now, though, the Bucks are one of the best teams in the league and a legitimate contender to win a championship. As such, they should be getting a whole lot more recognition. If that doesn’t happen, well, they’ll be more than happy to keep winning basketball games and keep their spot atop the East.