The Phoenix Suns have a Giannis Antetokounmpo problem.
Following a quiet Game 1 by his standards, Antetokounmpo exploded for 42 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals. It wasn't enough for the Bucks to come away with the victory, but he followed it up with 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in Game 3, this time resulting in a win for Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo worked his way into the record books in the process, becoming only the second player in NBA history with back-to-back 40-point, 10-rebound games in the Finals.
You've probably heard of the other player who did it.
Only two players in NBA history had 40+ points and 10+ rebounds in back-to-back Finals games.- StatMuse (@statmuse) July 12, 2021
Shaq and Giannis. pic.twitter.com/IO4pZJEbDO
Antetokounmpo was incredibly efficient in both of those games as well, shooting 15-for-22 (68.1 percent) from the field in Game 2 and 14-for-23 (60.9 percent) in Game 3.
Let's take a closer look at how the two-time MVP has taken over the Finals.
The matchup data
To no surprise, Deandre Ayton has defended Antetokounmpo more than anyone else on the Suns.
The numbers point to Ayton doing about as good of a job as anyone could expect against him. The problem is Antetokounmpo has dominated every other matchup the Suns have thrown at him.
Whereas Antetokounmpo has scored a total of 28 points on 11-for-25 (44.0 percent) shooting from the field with Ayton as his primary defender, he's scored a combined 70 points on - wait for it - 25-for-30 (83.3 percent) shooting against Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Torrey Craig, Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson.
Here's the breakdown of each of those matchups:
|Defender||Matchup minutes||Points||FGM-FGA||FTM-FTA||Shooting fouls|
The matchup data from the regular season matchups between the Suns and Bucks painted a similar picture of Ayton being the only Sun with a chance against Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo has looked pretty comfortable attacking everyone on the Suns, Ayton included.
Ayton matches up well with Antetokounmpo physically - the two are listed at the same height, only Ayton is eight pounds heavier - but Antetokounmpo's speed, length and athleticism has given Ayton trouble when he has been able to get into the paint. It doesn't help that the Suns have given Antetokounmpo a decent amount of space to work with in the halfcourt, choosing not to build a wall as aggressively as some teams have in the past.
Where Ayton has had success is he's been able to bait Antetokounmpo into settling for jumpers at times. (A stat that will likely blow your mind: Antetokounmpo is 26-for-28 in the restricted area in the Finals. Outside of the restricted area? 9-for-28. Him shooting anything outside of the paint continues to be a win for the defence). Everyone else on the Suns, not so much.
One thing Antetokounmpo has done a great job of in the Finals is not letting the Suns off the hook when he has had a favourable matchup.
Whether it's the 6-foot-6 and 209-pound Bridges...
...the 6-foot-8 and 210-pound Johnson...
...or even the 6-foot-6 and 235-pound Crowder...
...Antetokounmpo has been relentless when it comes to punishing smaller defenders with his size, usually by going at them in the post.
Those problems have extended beyond the halfcourt for the Suns. It's no secret that Antetokounmpo likes to get out in transition - nobody scored more points in the open court than him in the regular season - but it puts a lot of pressure on Ayton to get back on defence, whether it's following a missed shot or turnover.
If Ayton isn't able to get back in time, it puts the Suns at risk of Antetokounmpo bulldozing his way to the basket...
...or attacking the offensive glass.
Antetokounmpo and Ayton not always being matched up together complicates matters further, because it can create cross matches in favour of Antetokounmpo.
Last but not least, the Bucks have weaponized Antetokounmpo in the pick-and-roll. According to InStat, he scored one basket as the roll man in Games 1 and 2 combined. In Game 3, he scored three of his 14 field goals on those plays.
That might not sound like much, but it led to six easy points for Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo's gravity as the roll man also created a few good looks for his teammates.
"They are jumping up on my pick-and-rolls a little bit, then bringing extra bodies to Giannis' roll, so I can't hit him," Khris Middleton said after Game 3. "So from there, we did our job. We attracted a crowd, and I just find an open man, and allow and trust those other guys to make plays and make shots."
Let's talk about free throws
Briefly, at least.
Antetokounmpo is getting to the line in this series and he's making them count. In Game 1, he went 7-for-12 (58.3 percent) from the charity stripe. In Game 2, 11-for-18 (61.1 percent). In Game 3, 13-for-17 (76.5 percent) Add it all together, and Antetokounmpo is averaging 15.7 free throw attempts per game in the Finals while converting them at a 66.0 percent clip.
He didn't come close to that volume and efficiency in the previous rounds.
|vs. Miami Heat (First Round)||5.3||8.3||63.6|
|vs. Brooklyn Nets (Second Round)||4.1||8.6||48.3|
|vs. Atlanta Hawks (Third Round)||3.8||7.0||53.6|
|vs. Phoenix Suns (Finals)||10.3||15.7||66.0|
Time will tell if Antetokounmpo can continue to make the Suns pay for fouling him, but he's been able to so far.
"When he gets downhill, gets to the basket, gets to the free-throw line, it encourages him to keep going," Johnson said of Antetokounmpo. "And he was hitting his free throws tonight and that just kind of opens up his whole game. So it's on us to stop him, give him more resistance.
Where do the Suns go from here?
A couple of things to monitor.
One, it's pretty clear the Suns can't afford for Ayton to be limited in any way. Not only has he been Phoenix's best individual defender on Antetokounmpo, but the Bucks have been a different team as a whole with Ayton on the bench. According to NBA.com, they're scoring at a rate of 109.9 points per 100 possessions with Ayton on the court compared to 122.0 with him off.
Small sample size, sure, but the Suns don't have much depth behind Ayton now that Dario Saric is done for the season.
While Ayton was able to stay out of foul trouble in Game 1 and Game 2, he was limited to 24 minutes in Game 3 after picking up five fouls.
"He's a big part of our team, especially he's the anchor of our defence," Paul said of Ayton after Game 3. "I feel like any team would love for him not to be on court offensively and defensively. So, yeah, we got to protect him better and make sure that we're showing that wall."
Speaking of the wall, it'll be interesting to see if the Suns show Antetokounmpo more bodies than they have through three games. Of course, that puts them at greater risk of Middleton, Jrue Holiday or someone else on the Bucks getting going, but that might be the lesser of two evils.
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