NBA

NBA Finals: Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t need to score 40 points to shine in Game 4 vs. Suns

There’s something viscerally thrilling about watching a superstar chase a 40- or 50-point game in the playoffs. It’s almost gladiatorial. We understand the stakes, instinctively. This player wouldn’t be fighting so desperately for every last point if his team didn’t sorely need him to be doing so. Every bead of sweat becomes noticeable. The effort and the drive are as mesmerizing as the plays themselves. The player is fighting for his team’s life, and he’s doing it with 20,000-plus fans roaring in his ears. 

It’s easy to get lost in performances like that and assume that games rest entirely upon them. Giannis Antetokounmpo had two of them in a row in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, serving as a living battering ram against a defense ill-equipped to keep him away from the basket. Phoenix devoted the bulk of its defensive resources to preventing a repeat scenario on Wednesday, so Giannis ceded centerstage in the scoring department to teammate Khris Middleton and opponent Devin Booker in Milwaukee’s 109-103 Game 4 win

The two became the first opposing players to score 40 points in the Finals since Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal did so in 2001, and in the process, their duel became the game’s offensive focus. Antetokounmpo hardly ceded the spotlight entirely. His late-game block of DeAndre Ayton will go down in Finals lore as an all-time defensive gem, but his offensive performance seems destined to get lost in the process. Antetokounmpo didn’t score 40 for the third game in a row, nor did he come particularly close, but he still managed to impose his will on the game offensively in much subtler and ultimately more dangerous ways.

Phoenix was determined not to be slain by gladiator Giannis yet again in Game 4. The degrees to which they packed the paint against him early on were somewhat staggering. Three Suns converged on him on this play, and that set the tone for his statistically underwhelming first half. 

Look at how they handle Giannis on this fast break. They don’t even pretend to care about the three wide-open shooters behind the arc. 

This is what a defense that has spent the past week getting humiliated by a single player looks like. The Suns devoted their entire plan to slowing down Antetokounmpo inside with many of the same wall-building tactics other teams have been using to disarm the Bucks for years. Rather than crashing into that wall as he so often has in the past, Antetokounmpo hit the breaks. It would be easy, at this point, to emphasize his eight assists and suggest that his dominance came largely by weaponizing the attention the Suns paid him. Passes like this one support that argument.

Antetokounmpo makes opportunistic passes like this frequently, but he isn’t a traditional point guard. He’s not going to spray passes around the floor to every open teammate as a base tactic for the Bucks. No, the beauty of his Game 4 is essentially the opposite. Milwaukee’s offense didn’t revolve around Antetokounmpo, at least not as directly as it had earlier in the series. 

The Bucks ended 11 possessions with Antetokounmpo isolations in Game 2, according to Synergy Sports. He devoted just as many Game 3 possessions to post-ups. But in Game 4, he combined for seven possessions used on isolations and post-ups, eschewing the traditional sorts of plays the Bucks run specifically for him. That didn’t mean he wasn’t an active participant in the offense. Antetokounmpo was a very frequent screener in pick-and-roll as he has been all series, and that helped Middleton significantly on his way to 40 points. It just meant that the Bucks didn’t need to go out of their way to find Antetokounmpo shots.

Four of the biggest came on the offensive glass. In the first quarter, he energized the Milwaukee crowd when he rebounded a Bobby Portis miss (that stemmed from his own air-balled 3-pointer) and put it back for a dunk. In the fourth, he cut the Suns lead to one by saving the Jrue Holiday transition miss that officials would later admit should have resulted in Devin Booker’s sixth foul.

Plenty more came in transition, where Antetokounmpo remains unstoppable. 

But the bulk were just the result of good offense. When the Bucks ran their offense with Antetokounmpo near the basket, all it took was one Suns error, forced or unforced, to get him easy points.

The ease of these points is precisely the point. When Phoenix runs its base defense, Giannis kills them for somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 points. When they reconfigure their defense specifically to slow him down … he still scores 26, and he does so with a concerning effortlessness. Relative to most superstars or even his typical self, the Bucks ran barely any plays specifically for Antetokounmpo in Game 4. He found 26 points within the flow of the game, never disrupting Milwaukee’s offense to get them.

Did that contribute to Middleton’s outburst? There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that it did. Middleton can be somewhat inconsistent, but has thrived when separated from his MVP teammate this postseason. He scored 58 points in the two Eastern Conference finals wins that Antetokounmpo missed, and when Giannis was hobbled in Game 1 of the Finals, Middleton poured in 29. He then scored only 29 points in Games 2 and 3 combined as Antetokounmpo dominated the offense. 

None of this is to suggest that Middleton is better without Antetokounmpo, but he does seem to benefit from being more of a focal point. Not every superstar can accommodate a teammate in that way. Giannis did in Game 4, and that leaves the Suns without an obvious answer on how to defend the Bucks.

Letting him get to 40 is untenable, as we saw in Game 3. Game 4 showed that fully packing the paint creates just as many problems, and those problems will only worsen in games in which the Bucks shoot better than 24 percent from behind the arc. If Antetokounmpo is going to find 26 points anyway, the benefits of tilting the defense so heavily against him are minimized anyway. 

It’s a different sort of offensive stardom, but one that is ultimately more sustainable and necessary in pursuit of a championship. Giannis isn’t going to score 40 points every night. Nobody can do that. But he’s effectively deprived the Suns of any easy defensive solutions. Whether the Bucks are running through him or not, he is going to dominate offensively just as he did in Game 4.


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