Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Giannis Antetokounmpo plays into Brooklyn Nets' hands with 3-point fixation

In the jargon of basketball, a player who has made several shots in a row and feels compelled to jack up yet another - however ill-advised - is conducting a "heat check."

Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo, by hoisting 3-point miss after 3-point miss against Brooklyn in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, went the other way and decided to run his own personal "frost check."

"Cold? Yep. Still cold? Huh. Maybe this time … nope. How 'bout now? Rats!"

Regression to the mean? More like regression to the nasty. The more Antetokounmpo dribbled up to the arc and tested his luck again and again (and again), the more the season's first sold-out crowd at Fiserv Forum and Bucks fans viewing from afar winced, groaned or dropped a few expletives.

There were only a handful of people in the arena pleased with Antetokounmpo's decisions in those moments: the Brooklyn Nets' traveling party.

If the foundation of competition in any sport at any level is to do as often as possible what your opponent would prefer you not do, the Bucks' two-time MVP winner was doing precisely what the Nets wanted him to.

Antetokounmpo took those shots when the Bucks were up big in the first quarter, he took them when Brooklyn was lowering the boom in the second, he took them when the score stayed through the third.

Milwaukee led by a point early in the fourth when the Greek Freak missed from 26 feet to go 0 for 6. It was a one-point game moments later when he tried from 28 feet - and, ta-dah!, finally sank one. That all but guaranteed Antetokounmpo would attempt another and, sure enough, he did.

Just six seconds into a Bucks possession with the score tied 76-76 and 4:42 left in what was looming as the biggest game of his career. Nope again.

Antetokounmpo went 1 of 8 on 3s on a night when he made 14 of 23 2-point attempts. He already was cutting the Nets enough slack from the foul line, missing five of his first seven in going 4 of 9. With his five turnovers already costing the Bucks precious playoff possessions - they got 90 shots to Brooklyn's 94 - Milwaukee's best player was single-handedly snuffing a half dozen more by indulging his personal vision of versatility.

Six of his seven misses were rebounded by Brooklyn. And six of the eight attempts came 11 seconds or earlier in the possession. This wasn't a night of Antetokounmpo repeatedly ending up with the hot potato deep into the shot clock. This was him deciding that's what the Bucks needed in their offense, in that moment.

From the sound of it, he'd do it again, no matter how much the Nets approved.

"Basketball is all about instincts," Antetokounmpo said after Milwaukee survived 86-83 to trail 2-1 heading into Sunday's (ET) Game 4. "If my instincts tell me that's the best decision to take, you know, I live with that. I was just trying to make the right decision at the right moment and today that was shooting eight 3s. Maybe next game, it will be zero 3s, who knows."

Pray, Bucks fans, pray. Antetokounmpo shot 30.3% on 3-pointers in 2020-21 and has a career rate of 28.7%. Milwaukee was 14-4 this season when he attempted two or fewer, 26-17 on three or more.

His success has tailed off lately. Worse than his 3 of 16 against Brooklyn, worse than his 4 of 32 in the playoffs, Antetokounmpo went 2 of 14 in his final six regular-season appearances. That makes him 6 of 46 (13%) in 13 games dating to May 5.

And that undercuts what generally is offered as Antetokounmpo's rationale for launching the shots in the first place.

"It just opens up the court not only for himself but for everybody," teammate Khris Middleton said right before Antetokounmpo's current skid, when he was making 8 of 20 3-pointers in back-to-back May games against the Nets. "When he's playing on the perimeter a lot of teams like to sag off him or build a wall. But if he starts knocking down that jump shot, they have to respect him out there and it just creates more drive lanes for everybody else, more space for everybody else, including himself."

It's a big "if" these days, and it's playing to the 6-foot-11 star's weakness rather than his strength. Antetokounmpo talks about his 3-point adventures as if they're part of a personal development program to enable him to be the best all-around player he can be. Which might be fine for the regular season but c'mon, not now.

Antetokounmpo's attempted 3s and his unreliable foul shots have this much in common: He rarely shoots either in any natural rhythm. He seems to overthink and squeeze the life from his free throws by taking too long in his routine. And he has so much space when happy opponents invite him to shoot from the arc, he's measuring and aiming without much flow.

Antetokounmpo can't always control how often he gets to the foul line - he's 27 of 52 in the playoffs so far, a Hack-a-Greek waiting to happen - but he does have alternatives to his 3s.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer overhauled the team's offensive system this season to take some bricks out of those defensive walls that confront Antetokounmpo as he attacks. He incorporated the "dunker spot" close to the basket along the baseline, making sure it stays manned to pull at least one defender lower, with Antetokounmpo a threat to find that man with a simple pass. Sometimes the Greek Freak is the guy working from there.

Besides, he is the Milwaukee scorer who needs the most room to roam. It's on the shooters with real range to open lanes for him. But against Brooklyn so far, the other Bucks are shooting just 23.6% (17 of 72) on 3s. That includes Middleton (6 of 19, 31.6%), Bryn Forbes (3 of 13, 23.1%), Jrue Holiday (4 of 13, 30.8%), P.J. Tucker (1 of 8, 12.5%) and Pat Connaughton (0 of 3).

Budenholzer isn't going to criticize his meal ticket openly for shaky shot selection. Antetokounmpo is averaging 28.3 points on 54.3% shooting overall with 12.0 rebounds in the series. Fans and even teammates might be hoping the Bucks coach at least reins him in by pointing out better options.

So expecting coach Mike Budenholzer to slam him for taking 3s? Publicly anyway? It's not going to happen.

"It's something that he's going to do," Budenholzer said. "Obviously when he scores and makes 3s, it makes him harder to guard. To say he's never going to shoot a 3 is probably not wise. To say he's going to shoot 20 of them is probably not wise. So, he's got to find his spots, he's got to understand to attack and we've got to play with each other. But part of us being good is letting Giannis continue to grow as a shooter."

Part of Brooklyn being good right now, though, is watching Giannis continue to try.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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