Wednesday seemed like it would end up LaMelo Ball’s night. The Hornets’ megamind was putting on a masterclass against the Bucks, replete with disgusting crossovers against superstar defenders, casually audacious passes, and a would-be capstone three-pointer with six seconds left. Ball had his career-high in hand and seemed to be headed towards another legend-making win, if his team could just get to overtime. Ah, well, about that:
The above Bucks’ game-winning inbounds play is a real gem. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a player whose game relies on forward momentum. If he is allowed to practice bipedal locomotion at speed, you can’t really do anything to stop him, especially now that he’s become an ace passer. However, he’s never going to be an especially crafty dribbler, and his shot is not threatening enough that defenders can’t overplay him in certain ways. Those minor deficiencies should be their most detrimental during out-of-bounds plays, though Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer simply drew up a play that allowed Antetokounmpo to catch the ball at speed and then take it from there. To his credit, P.J. Washington defended the hell out of the play, forcing Antetokounmpo to spin a finger roll with his off hand off the bottom of the glass. “You’ve got to be sneaky with it,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “I’m getting old. I’m not able to dunk on people anymore, so I’ve got to be sneaky.”
Almost no part of that sentence is true, but, sure, sneakiness is perhaps one of the few basketball skills Antetokounmpo could stand to improve. He logged 40 points, 12 boards, and nine assists last night, and while Nikola Jokic and Steph Curry have understandably owned the MVP conversation, many of the holistic advanced stats favor Antetokounmpo. After a blah start to the season, the Bucks have rounded into form this past month, winning eight in a row. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are healthy and increasingly feisty on both ends of the court. Grayson Allen (I know, I know!) has nestled into the starting lineup and shown himself a perfect fit as a tertiary ballhandler and 3-and-D guy. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo is steadily cranking out MVP-levels of production, with slightly fewer points and slightly more assists and steals and blocks than his actual MVP seasons. For all the legitimate worry about a championship (and Olympic) hangover following their 6-8 start, the Holiday-Antetokounmpo-Middleton trio is still unkillable: They are plus-20.4 per 100 possessions in 150 minutes together, with offensive and defensive ratings that are both better than the league’s leading teams.
Finish the team off with career-best three-point shooting from Pat Connaughton and their potential to throw three different centers at opponents (if DeMarcus Cousins, who looked good last night, holds up), and it is impossible to consider the Bucks as anything other than no-shit contenders to repeat. The past two title-winners each followed up their championships with sluggish seasons. Milwaukee is going to have to fight through a tougher Eastern Conference this year, now that the Bulls, Wizards, and Hornets are functional. Still, “functional” is a long way from meaningfully troubling a fully activated Giannis Antetokounmpo.