NBA Insider

Giannis' Achilles' heel could doom Bucks

NBA Insider
NBC Sports

The final buzzer signaling the Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat wouldn’t sound for another couple hours, but Giannis Antetokounmpo already looked defeated. Late in the second quarter, Antetokounmpo had just posted up Heat wing Jae Crowder on the left block. On paper, Antetokounmpo had a clear advantage; Crowder’s listed height is about a half a foot shorter than the Greek Freak. In other words, it was bully time.

Antetokounmpo went right at him with a textbook move, facing up Crowder before a hard dribble toward the paint. After a strong elbow to establish space, Antetokounmpo went up for an easy two points. Against a normal 7-foot defender, Antetokounmpo’s elbow may have thudded into the opposing giant’s chest, but against the 6-foot-6 Crowder it landed in his neck. 

Crowder fell backward clutching his chin, prompting an immediate whistle. Mission accomplished. When the nearby referee called an offensive foul, Antetokounmpo put his head down and dejectedly stood with his hands down at his sides.

It was only one basket and one offensive foul, but Antetokounmpo’s body language suggested he was surrendering to something greater: his years-long war against the referees. Yes, the soon-to-be-back-to-back MVP has an Achilles’ heel, and it won’t go away.

Antetokounmpo led all players this season with 65 offensive fouls committed, according to PBPstats.com tracking. No other player came close. James Harden finished second with 51 offensive fouls. To put that in perspective, Antetokounmpo committed more offensive fouls this season than LeBron James (28), Russell Westbrook (25) and Zion Williamson (9) combined.

 

At 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds with arms that seem to stretch on for days, Antetokounmpo has the size, speed and wingspan to terrorize opponents on both ends of the floor. He barrels his way to the basket and Eurosteps around defenders with relative ease. And yet, the offensive foul remains his biggest problem. 

Sure, a reliable jumper would be nice, but a missed 23-footer doesn’t put Antetokounmpo one unnecessary foul closer to the end of his night. More importantly, a missed jumper doesn’t psychologically deter him from going to his most valuable move, attacking the rim. It does the opposite.

This isn’t exactly a secret, either. In the Bucks’ first round series against the Orlando Magic, Antetokounmpo tallied eight offensive fouls in five games, with six being of the “charge” variety. That’s an alarmingly high total. Through Monday’s games, no other player in the postseason has more than two such offensive fouls.

The trend continued on Monday, largely by design. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra almost never put someone of equal size onto Antetokounmpo, using smaller defenders like Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala far more than All-Star big man Bam Adebayo. It worked, with the Heat generating two offensive fouls on Antetokounmpo before halftime. First, the Crowder elbow and later, another offensive foul while he tried to establish position in the post on Iguodala. Rather than make the Heat pay for going small, the advantage went the other way.

The Heat subversive strategy exposed Antetokounmpo’s weak spot. Hampered by early foul trouble, Antetokounmpo mostly stayed out of the paint and averaged 14.4 feet on his 12 field goal attempts, his third-furthest mark of the season, per Stathead.com data.

Antetokounmpo’s penchant for offensive fouls has been a rocky undercurrent to his championship quest. Opponents know that taking a charge is one surefire way to get under his skin. Less than a month ago, Antetokounmpo was suspended for his final seeding game after head-butting Washington Wizards center Mo Wagner. The play that sparked Antetokounmpo’s rage? It was a charge Wagner drew on Antetokounmpo.

After the game, Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he didn’t see anything wrong with Wagner’s play (Wagner, by the way, was the league’s most prolific charge-taker this season). Forcing the offensive foul, Brooks said, is a deliberate strategy against Antetokounmpo.

“That's what you have to do,” Brooks told reporters. “You've gotta drop off and force him to shoot. He can drive, [you] step up and take a charge.”

That Wizards game was Antetokounmpo’s first ejection since April 1, 2018 in Denver when he yelled at officials following his sixth and disqualifying foul. The whistle in question was -- you guessed it -- an offensive foul drawn by Nikola Jokic, after Antetokounmpo’s drive into the paint sent the Nuggets’ center to the floor.

 

Charges against Antetokounmpo have sparked controversy with his East rivals, most recently with the Boston Celtics. With the game tied 107-107 in the Bucks’ first seeding game and 1:28 remaining in the game, Boston’s Marcus Smart slid over and took a charge on Antetokounmpo’s driving layup that went in. The referees whistled Antetokounmpo for his sixth foul, disqualifying him from the game, but a referee review overturned the call, ruling that Smart was in motion The reversal kept Antetokounmpo in the game and he proceeded to make the and-one free throw to put Milwaukee up 110-107. The Bucks won 119-112.

“Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about,” Smart said after the game. “Giannis has six fouls and they didn’t want to get him out. Let’s call a spade a spade and that’s just what it is.”

Smart was fined $15,000 for his comments criticizing the officials. When asked about Smart’s play, Antetokounmpo paid respect to Smart and said the strategy wouldn’t alter his overall gameplan.

“I gotta still be aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “If I get six charges, OK, I can live with that.”

If Monday was any indicator, the Heat will certainly try to make that come true. Miami ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to drawing charges this season, but against the Bucks, they’ve done plenty of it. This season, they’ve drawn eight offensive fouls from Antetokounmpo in four games. Only the Chicago Bulls, with nine, drew more (Thaddeus Young drew five all by himself.)

Behind the scenes, the Bucks have consistently reached out to the league office throughout the season regarding what they believe is unfair officiating of Antetokounmpo, according to sources. On some level, this is common practice among front offices with superstar players and championship aspirations (right, Houston?). The Bucks believe their opponents have resorted to flopping tactics in order to get false foul calls against Antetokounmpo and push him out of the game. 

Theoretically, the NBA has a way to combat rampant flopping. In 2012, the NBA established rules against the act of embellishment, but the Bucks, among several NBA teams, have noticed that the league has essentially phased out any enforcement, giving players what they believe to be the freedom to flop with impunity, according to sources. For instance, while 75 offensive fouls have been called on Antetokounmpo (including the postseason), zero players have been fined for flopping on contact with Antetokounmpo -- or contact with any player for that matter. 

In fact, according to Spotrac’s league punishment database, Patrick Beverley, back in November, is the only player to be fined for flopping over the last three seasons. Of course, that could mean that flopping has been successfully eradicated from the game, but it wouldn’t take long for anyone with two eyes and a TV to disagree with that notion. 

The Bucks will have to solve this quickly. At this rate, Antetokounmpo is headed for infamy. With 10 offensive foul calls in just five games (two per game), Antetokounmpo is on pace to nearly double the previous mark for most offensive foul calls committed per game in the 21st century.

 

Part of that is the nature of his game and a cost of doing business. He’s the MVP after all. Antetokounmpo is also bigger, faster and stronger than just about anyone in this game. Sometimes he gets out of control and inevitably truck sticks opponents. The rulebook states, under Section 2a., that “a dribbler must be in control of his body at all times. If illegal contact occurs, the responsibility is on the dribbler.” 

Through at least one game, Miami’s small-ball strategy was a success. The Bucks scored just 24 points in the paint on Monday, their lowest of the season. Giving Antetokounmpo more paint looks will help the Bucks, as long as he can assert his size without drawing a whistle. The larger fix for Milwaukee involves getting back to their transition game, which was rarely seen in Game 1 (Though Antetokounmpo’s transition game is also the top source for charges).

If the Heat can get away with defending Antetokounmpo with small forwards and leaving Adebayo to roam defensively, that’s an enormous strategic win. The Bucks have certainly come back from down 0-1 before. They did it against Orlando last series and Boston in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals. So far, the Heat have turned Antetokounmpo’s size advantage into a distinct disadvantage for Milwaukee. The Bucks’ season depends on the Greek Freak’s ability to bully opponents into submission and not the other way around.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.