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NBA Finals: Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo Dominates But Needs Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to Perform



I never understood the saying that an NBA playoff series “does not start until the road team wins a game.” That’s rubbish. It does not start because it is already over 82 percent of the time when the higher seed rises 2-0. Only four times in history has a team lost its first two games in an NBA Finals and returned to win: the 2016 Cavaliers, the 2006 Heat, the 1977 Blazers and the 1969 Celtics.

So if you are the Milwaukee Bucks, now down 0-2 to the Phoenix Suns after a 118-108 defeat on Thursday, do not look to historical precedent in search of a silver lining. It does not bode well for your chances.

Instead, look at the Game 2 dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who added 42 points, 1

2 rebounds, four assists and three blocks on Tuesday. He shot 15-for-22 from the field, including 14-for-17 on 2-pointers 11-for-18 from the free-throw line. He started aggressively and never took his foot off the gas. He muscled and spun his way to the edge of the halfway line. He steamrolled in the transition. He hit one-foot mistakes and turning baseline jumpers. His 20 points in the third quarter are the most in a single NBA Finals quarter, since Michael Jordan scored 22 in the second quarter of the second game of the 1993 Finals against, oddly enough, the Suns.

Giannis recently said he thought he would be out for a year after his left leg bent backwards in the form of a V in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. He was not alone. It looked ugly. It turned out to be “just” a hyperextension, and that Giannis is back and playing somewhere near full strength is the brightest sign of hope in Milwaukee’s otherwise bleak prospects. This is a best-case scenario for the two-time MVP and by extension the Bucks.

So far in this series, the Bucks have beaten the Suns with Giannis on the floor (plus-4 over 75 minutes, 28 seconds of play). The problem is that they get torn down when he sits (minus 27 over 20:32). It’s not often that single-game on-off numbers match so perfectly with the underlying story, but in this case, it couldn’t be more obvious: Giannis needs help.

On Tuesday, Khris Middleton finished with 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 1-for-6 over the arc. Jrue Holiday, who has been on and off (mostly off) in the playoffs, shot 7 to 21. It does not take a genius to know that your second- and third-best players combine 12-for-37 while generating a modest 0.75 points per. Shot attempts, will not cut it, especially when the Suns shoot 10 for- 20 from 3 as a team, as they did on Thursday.

On the flip side, Milwaukee’s 3-point shooting has been so bad this postseason, it’s actually remarkable that they’ve come this far – despite the injuries to Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Trae Young. In the regular season, the Bucks shot 38.9 percent from 3, which was tied for 4th best in the league. In the playoffs, they shoot just 31.8 percent, the lowest goal for any team that came out of the first round.

Middleton, on the other hand, has fallen from just under 42 percent in the normal season to 33.8 percent in the playoffs. Holidays are down from 39 to 29 percent. Bryn Forbes, who in the regular season boasted the league’s third best 3-point percentage (45.2) of all who tried at least four per. Match, is down over seven percent in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo, who should never shoot a single 3-pointer (do not even start with this team-defense-honest nonsense), has dropped from 30 percent to 19 percent in the playoffs.

I generally hate narrowing down NBA games and series to suggestions or advances. I tend to think when you miss a lot of shots, you usually take bad ones. The Bucks could certainly do more to create a better look, but at some point, if Middleton and Holiday were to be champions at the championship level, they would have to start finding the net.

Middleton has had stellar stretches in those playoffs. Holiday had a good series vs. Atlanta, and perhaps it is no coincidence that he and Middleton combined for 110 points over games 5 and 6 against the Hawks when Antetokounmpo was not playing. There is more space without Giannis on the floor. Middleton and Holiday get total pick-and-roll / isolation control of the offense, as opposed to Mike Budenholzer feeling the need to give Gianni the ball at the top of the halfway line so he can run straight into a wall.

The Bucks are certainly more predictable when Giannis starts. It’s a different story for another day, but Giannis should play more as a secondary creator in the half. He should attack defenses in rotation rather than those who are set and waiting for him. He had to cut, roll, operate from high post. Crash dummy drives are not. Budenholzer moved Giannis around on Thursday, but when the two-time MVP got underway, he all too often went back to just giving Giannis the ball at the top with no clear path or plan.

If Giannis ever adds a reliable middle class jumper, all this will change. I would not rule it out. He has a pretty decent form and he has already made great strides as a shooter. But until that happens, this will remain a big mistake in the Giannis-as-your-best player equation. In a perimeter-oriented game, it’s hard to place him in uniform scoring spots while trying to navigate the shooting – and lack of dribbling counter-movements – hole. He does not necessarily make insults easier for those around him.

That said, one thing we do know is this: Giannis will give you everything he has. This guy is a fighter. He’s not afraid of failure, maybe of a mistake (like I said, stop shooting 3s). He has seen his free throws in the eye and continued to attack the basket. He was phenomenal Thursday. In both ends. The guy’s engine never stops. He pushes hard in the transition, flies defensively around, crashes the glass. He is a leader. A positive teammate at all times. He is a superstar in every sense. I have not always been ready to hit him with that mark because of some of the gaps I have mentioned, but I will not. Giannis is amazing.

But again, the problem is that the Suns have thaw superstars.

When Booker and Paul play like that, not to mention Mikal Bridges, who scores 27 points by himself on Thursday, Gianni’s needs a winger or two to show up. The Bucks did what they could to limit Paul and Booker. Give Holiday credit for how hard he fought to get over bullet screens. He was successful too much of the game in limiting Paul’s inconsistency on switches, nor did he allow Paul to come downhill in his middle jumper. He came across the screen and cut Paul off as well as anyone could possibly be expected to do.

But Paul and the Suns are a little inevitable right now. The Bucks went more often to drop the cover against Booker, and he boiled them down. They collapsed into the paint and dug hard down from the wings of drivers, limiting Phoenix to just 28 paint points, but it left a lot of 3-point shooters open and the Suns made them pay.

You just can not defend everything against these suns. Anyone can shoot. Anyone can lay the ball on the floor. There are weapons all over the court. What Milwaukee should do if it has any hope of winning Game 3 and making this a series is to keep up with Phoenix with its own scoring.

The Bucks scored the league-best 120.1 points per game in the regular season. They score only 106.5 through the first two matches in the final. That must change. Middleton and Holiday have to live up to $ 300 million plus Milwaukee is required to pay them. Even down 0-2, with all the statistical history working against them, you can still argue that this may be Milwaukee’s best chance of winning a title with Giannis. But the man needs help. And he needs it now.




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