39 points on 15/22 field goals, 7/10 from the charity line, 16 rebounds and 4 assists. This time, it seems that the free-throw controversy surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game has lost its relevance. A convincing 113-101 win for the Milwaukee Bucks over the Celtics in Boston gave them a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final series.
Now, Charles Barkley predicts that the Bucks will win the NBA title and Magic Johnson thinks that “he will be dominating the NBA regular season and playoffs for many years to come”. But as far as the title goes, the NBA betting is on fire, since all teams have shown strenghts and weaknesses.
“When you see him coming, you have to foul him hard. You’ve got to hold on”, Marcus Morris said on Giannis Antetokounmpo before the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics series started. “We have to force him to take contested shots, throw a lot of fouls, be aggressive”, “Semi” Ojeleye added.
As Paul Flannery in his “Sunday Shootaround” column remarks, Giannis was second only to James Harden in free throw attempts during the season. “Because of his length and athleticism”, Flannery explains, “he draws contact on nearly every play. In Game 1, the calls went Boston’s way largely because the Celtics were the aggressor. They didn’t in Game 3, mainly because they were back on their heels”.
However, after Game 3 ( the Bucks triumphed, 123-116, to take a 2-1 series lead), Kyrie Irving pulled no punches referring to Antetokounmpo’s series-high 22 free-throw attempts (16 were converted). “I mean, it’s inevitable”, Irving said. “Guy comes down almost six times in a row and get free throws. What are you really going to do? It’s slowing the game down so the run that you would hope to make in a quarter like that, doesn’t happen. I mean, he shot 22 (free throws) on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. It’s just slowing the fucking game down.”
So far, Giannis has been able to manage all that noise that was made and the questions surrounding the 22 free-throws he shot in Game 3 and a total of 40 in the previous two games. “Generally speaking, I don’t care what anyone says because I’m trying to concentrate on my own part. I’m sure they’re annoyed because if you can’t stop someone except by fouling him, it’s logical to be upset. But that’s good. They’re paying attention to MY free-throws instead of looking at how to deal with us”, the 24-year-old remarked.
No matter how (un)selfish the abovementioned statement may seem, it materialized into reality in the case of the Giannis vs the Celtics feud. All this controversy provided Brad Stevens and his players with a good excuse, but now the Bucks have three match-points in their hands, as they return to Milwaukee at 3-1. They are the only team with two “breaks” in the 2018-19 NBA semi-final series, finding themselves just one victory away from the Eastern finals and nine from the NBA title. Almost surreal, given the fact that the last and only time the trophy ended up in the state of Wisconsin was 48 years ago, back in 1971.
In the fourth game of the series, Giannis was again awarded a pair of free-throws just 51 seconds after tip-off. That was only the beginning. His next attempt was a spin-move, crafted with patience in order to find the way to the basket. It was another indication that the “Greek Freak” has improved significantly in locating the gaps on the opposing defense and making the most of them, sometimes scoring against Kyrie Irving or Al Horford, with Marcus Smart giving crucial help on double-teams.
In the beginning of the second half, the Celtics used three guards while the Bucks had three big men on the floor. Antetokounmpo seemed to have no problem taking advantage of the miss-matches, posting a three-pointer, a lay-up and a dunk in less than four minutes. However, it was not long before he went into foul trouble (his fourth personal) and to his team’s bench. Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton kept shooting extremely poorely from the distance, with Ilyasova playing at “five” to no avail. The game remained tied for most of the time until the Bucks gained significant momentum and a ten-point margin, mostly thanks to second-unit players like Hill and Connaughton.
The Bucks clearly have the upper hand right now. Milwaukee is doing what it takes to win the series. They outrun the Celtics, open the court with their shooters and create huge problems with the long hands of their players on defense. In Game 4, the Bucks enhanced their lead with Giannis and Middleton on the bench. Of course, when the going got tough in the fourth period, they simply relied on their principles by handing over the ball to Antetokounmpo and simply watched the “Greek Freak” lash out, scoring 17 points in that time.
Mike Budenholzer has sided Giannis with 11 players who are expert shooters from down town. When other coaches choose to send a second or third player to cut the penetration, Antetokounmpo almost always finds the free player οn the perimeter and when there’s a one-on-one defense, he is stopped only by foul or if he simply misses. Now that he scores more consistently from the three-pointer, there is hardly a solution to the problems he constantly generates to any defense.
There’s another interesting facet: When asked how he would guard himself, Giannis gave a rather predictable answer: “Oh man, I don’t know. I’d be as physical as I can … and at the end of the day, you have to let me shoot jump shots.” Although the statement seems to be scratching the surface or oversimplifying what can be described as the most difficult task for any defender in the league, Antetokounmpo’s weakness from beyond the arc is a commonplace. Many teams choose to guard him from a distance, giving him the option to shoot the ball, while others have the defender pick him up right at half court to cut off any driving lanes. However, the Pistons and now the Celtics don’t seem to have the best of luck, since the Greek forward is hitting 33% of his three-pointers — about 8% better than his regular season numbers.
Another proof that a foul on him is not the last resort after all.