Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks looked familiar Wednesday, and that was the problem.
This isn’t so much about the Bucks’ 122-121 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics. They are contenders again, so they shouldn’t get bent out of shape over a single defeatespecially not one produced by a banked-in Jayson Tatum game-winner.
The issue is that so much of what led to the Bucks’ last two disappointing playoff ousters undid them against the Celtics. And yes, we’re about to dig in and criticize a two-time MVP and the team he’s led to a 116-39 record over the last two regular seasons.
It feels ridiculous to suggest Giannis and the Bucks need to change, but it was impossible to suppress that thought Wednesday, particularly during the first three quarters of action. During that chunk of the game, Antetokounmpo racked up charges and turnovers with reckless, head-down drives.
DJ Fairley@DJFairley3Nothing shifts momentum like taking the charge.. @smart_MS3 https://t.co/pZRSpwguGS
Marcus Smart stood in and took three Giannis bull-rushes to the chest all on his own. Savvy second-year forward Grant Williams absorbed the fourth. In all, Antetokounmpo coughed the ball up seven times on the night. Nearly every turnover stemmed from a toxic combination of too much aggression and too little schematic variety.
If it didn’t seem like Giannis preferred to attack this way, you might conclude he was making the best of a bad offensive situation. But now more than two years into Milwaukee’s tenure as theoretical contenders, we know both player and team share the blame.
We’ve seen all this before, and we know where it ends: with the Bucks getting “solved” and eliminated in the playoffs.
Broadly, Antetokounmpo looked like the same dominant-but-flawed player he’s been over the last handful of seasons. He often physically overwhelmed the Celtics; some of those head-down drives during the first three quarters worked. But his choppy, hesitant three-point attempts looked as uncomfortable as ever, and we’ve buried the lede by waiting until now to mention that Giannis, whose free-throw shooting became a massive point of concern last year, front-rimmed what would have been the game-tying freebie with four-tenths of a second left in the game.
Bleacher Report@BleacherReportGiannis misses potential game-tying FTs https://t.co/kzRHrO5vMH
That gets us to a paradox: “Same old Giannis” felt somehow disappointing, but he might win a third MVP anyway.
Maybe this is just what happens with a player who improves as dramatically as Giannis. It warps our expectations. We assume that because he turned himself from a painfully thin, positionless (when that used to be a bad thing) question mark into a human exclamation point that there’s no upper limit on his growth.
He can dunk with one dribble from the logo? Well, why can’t he shoot 40 percent from three?
The Bucks can win 60-something games and dominate on both ends during the regular season? Well, why can’t they waltz through the playoffs to a title?
It’s possible Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have reached their limits, but there was evidence in the fourth quarter that further development could be ahead.
In that frameGiannis’ critical missed free throw excludedhe and the Bucks really did look a bit different.
Chalk it up to desperation if you want, but it remains true that Giannis pumped in 18 points in the fourth, hauling Milwaukee back into a game it trailed by 17 at the end of the third. Antetokounmpo piled up those points via a few of his typical “Eurostep into contact” attacks, but he also knocked down a pair of threes, scored against the smaller Jaylen Brown down low in some designed post-ups and cannily split a perimeter trap to dime up Donte DiVincenzo for an uncontested lay-in.
NBA on TNT@NBAonTNTGiannis with a no-look dime https://t.co/LzGj6m9Ff7
All told, Giannis finished with 35 points and 13 boardscareer-night numbers for the majority of NBA players, and yet somehow a letdown. He finished a one-point loss with a minus-one plus/minus. Those numbers are always noisy, but there’s something that feels right about that “not quite enough” statistical assessment.
The challenge for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will be balancing all of the qualities that got them to this pointperseverance, aggression and rigid adherence to a scheme that workswith the acknowledgement that relying solely on those things will produce a disappointingly familiar outcome.
It’s overdramatic to say the Bucks must adapt or die. They’ll win a ton of games if they don’t change a thing. But they almost certainly can’t win the biggest games, the ones they desperately need and the ones so many observers feel they should have won already, if they don’t change.
Back in September, when Giannis answered questions about leaving Milwaukee following yet another early postseason exit, he told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes: “It’s not happening…Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it.”
A humble suggestion for Giannis and the Bucks if they’d like this year to be different than the last two: Maybe think about going around that wall every once in a while.
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press