Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Miami Heat centre Bam Adebayo takes the spotlight.
Context: On Friday, the Milwaukee Bucks will take on the Miami Heat at 1:30 am IST. Not only will it be an opportunity to see two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference go head-to-head, it will be an opportunity to see two of the Eastern Conference's best big men do battle in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo.
While there may not be such a thing as a Giannis stopper anymore, there aren't many players who have been able to bother him as much as Adebayo has this season. It came to a head in a meeting between the two teams in early March when the Heat limited Antetokounmpo to 13 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the field, making for his second-worst shooting performance of the season.
As was the case in last season's Eastern Conference Finals when the Toronto Raptors made Antetokounmpo look somewhat human, it took a team effort for the Heat to slow Antetokounmpo down. And yet, much like what happened in last season's Eastern Conference Finals, one player - Adebayo in this situation - received the bulk of the credit.
So was it something Adebayo can replicate or was it more of a one-off? Let's take a closer look at one possession from that game to get an idea.
The play: Antetokounmpo commits a turnover with Adebayo defending him.
Breakdown: Following a missed shot, the Heat get back on defence in time to prevent Antetokounmpo from scoring a quick basket in transition.
The Bucks reset and Antetokounmpo receives the ball with 13 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The four other Bucks on the court - George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton and Marvin Williams - are each on the right side of the court, clearing the left side entirely for Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo ranks in only the 56th percentile with an average of 0.89 points per isolation possession this season, but he's still a handful one-on-one. Even without a consistent jump shot, he can score against pretty much anyone. He's simply too big and too strong for most guards and forwards and too quick and too nimble for most centres to keep up with off the dribble.
With the floor clear, Antetokounmpo tries to drive baseline on Adebayo.
Adebayo moves his feet well and beats Antetokounmpo to his spot, forcing him to dribble the ball back out to the perimeter.
Antetokounmpo sizes Adebayo up with 10 seconds remaining and once again tries to take him baseline.
Adebayo follows Antetokounmpo step-for-step and bodies him up just outside of the paint.
Most defenders don't have the strength to absorb that type of contact from Antetokounmpo, but Adebayo holds his ground, leading to Antetokounmpo stepping out of bounds and losing his footing.
Antetokounmpo might have two inches on Adebayo, but Adebayo is listed as being 13 pounds heavier. That works to his advantage on this particular possession.
Why it matters: Using NBA.com's player tracking data, you can find out who has defended Antetokounmpo the most this season and which defenders have had the most success against him. According to that data, Antetokounmpo has attempted at least 10 shots against 30 different defenders, ranging from a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis to a rookie in P.J. Washington.
Of those 30 players, Adebayo, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Semi Ojeleye and Aaron Gordon are the only ones to hold Antetokounmpo to under 40.0 percent shooting.
Now, the player tracking data is far from perfect. As NBA.com's Brian Martin explained prior to the start of the season, "shots are attributed to who is matched up to that player at the time of the shot" as opposed to "the player that defended the shot taker for the majority of the possession."
An example: Adebayo could defend Antetokounmpo well for 20 seconds, but if Antetokounmpo takes a fadeaway jumper over someone else and misses, Adebayo wouldn't actually get the defensive credit. It works the other way as well. Antetokounmpo could blow by Adebayo on the perimeter, but if he scores a layup over Goran Dragic at the rim, it would go against Dragic, not Adebayo.
Basically, don't take the matchup data alone as gospel. It's more of a means to an end than an end-all, be-all. In the case of Adebayo, it shows that he defended Antetokounmpo more than most players this season and appeared to have some success against him.
So why are we even having this discussion? When push comes to shove, I'm not sure there's anyone built better than Adebayo - not even Kawhi Leonard - to defend Antetokounmpo one-on-one.
Even though he's not the big-time shot blocker that Embiid is, Adebayo has a unique blend of speed, strength and athleticism that makes him tailor-made to guard Antetokounmpo. He can keep up with him off the dribble, bang with him in the post and he's a good enough rim protector to challenge Antetokounmpo around the basket. That much showed in that game between the Bucks and Heat in early March, not only in the numbers but in the tape, the possession above being one of several examples of Adebayo going toe-to-toe with Antetokounmpo on an island.
The thing with Antetokounmpo is that we've seen certain defenders have success against him before, only for him to quickly figure them out. It happened to Embiid to a certain degree this season. After scoring 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting against the 76ers on Christmas Day - his worst shooting performance of the season - Antetokounmpo exploded for 36 points on 13-for-25 shooting and 31 points on 12-for-17 shooting in his next two meetings with Philadelphia, the bulk of his scoring coming against Embiid.
That's why I'm not quite prepared to crown Adebayo the Giannis stopper yet. There's a good chance Antetokounmpo comes out like a bat out of hell on Thursday and remind everyone that there isn't anyone who can match up with him. He is a one-time MVP - soon-to-be two-time MVP? - after all.
But if Adebayo is able to give Antetokounmpo trouble again, the crown of best Giannis defender will be his to lose.
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