Three things to know: Antetokounmpo says no panic despite fourth straight loss
The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.
1) Giannis Antetokounmpo says no panic mode despite fourth straight loss
We’re used to the Milwaukee Bucks dominating the regular season. Best record, best defense, best net rating in the league for two years running, led by the two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The problem was then the Bucks would flame out in the playoffs.
This season, it is not the same team. The Bucks have the ninth-best record, third-best net rating, their defense isn’t in the top 10 in the league, and if the vote were taken today Antetokounmpo would not be in the top five of MVP ballots for most voters.
Tuesday night, Toronto went into Milwaukee — where the Bucks have played better this year — and won easily, 124-113, behind 33 points from a red-hot Fred VanVleet. It was another game this season where the Bucks were outplayed in the fourth quarter, including being outscored 12-4 in the final five minutes.
That’s four straight losses for the Bucks — this team just doesn’t look the same. Nothing like the dominant force of the past two seasons. The Milwaukee defense is 8.1 points per 100 possessions worse than a season ago. It’s concerning, but Antetokounmpo said postgame Bucks fans should not be reaching for the panic button, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN.
Part of the reasons for Milwaukee’s struggles this season is they are finally doing some in-season experimentation and working on things they will need in the postseason (rather than playing one way all season then not being able to change or adapt come the playoffs). The Bucks are switching more on defense, which is rough for Brook Lopez and not always looking smooth, but a tool the team will need later. The Bucks are running more pick-and-roll, particularly with Antetokounmpo setting the screen and rolling, using his gravity to open things up (it works for Utah with Rudy Gobert). Those plays are not as efficient as Milwaukee’s offense in transition, but in the playoffs those transition buckets dry up and Milwaukee needs a diversified offense.
The Bucks also just don’t have the same depth that powered them in previous regular seasons, having given up a chunk of that to bring in Jrue Holiday, who runs those pick-and-rolls (as does Khris Middleton) and is a better playoff fit than Eric Bledsoe at the point.
All of which is to say: Antetokounmpo is right. Don’t panic. The Bucks are struggling more in the regular season, and while that is of some concern, the reasons they are struggling could be good in the long-run, and in the playoffs. The Bucks starting five — Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Lopez — is still outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions, and that group will get heavy run come the postseason.
Are these Bucks better positioned to win the East than the season’s past? This is a deeper, better East than the previous couple of years, with Brooklyn now added to the mix. These Bucks may well be a better playoff team, but whether that is enough is another question.
2) Phoenix was up by 24, but James Harden’s Nets owned the fourth quarter, got win
James Harden may have come to Brooklyn because he could share more of the offensive load, but with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in street clothes Tuesday night it was time for some vintage James Harden.
He delivered, scoring 38 points and dishing out 11 assists.
Phoenix looked in control of this one, leading by 24 just before halftime and seemingly in control during the third quarter. But with Harden on the bench, the Brooklyn reserves made plays — Jeff Green had 11 points in the fourth quarter, and Joe Harris, who had 22 on the night, was knocking down shots. The role players got it close, and then Harden came in and closed it all down.
Don’t look at this as a turning point for Brooklyn, their defense was still dreadful and it’s going to haunt them in the playoffs if it is not fixed.
But the Nets — and Harden — know how to put on a show. It is a shootout nightly, and Brooklyn has plenty of weapons. The Nets are must-watch basketball right now.
3) Bismack Biyombo is doing more important things than basketball
And I don’t mean mentoring LaMelo Ball.
Biyombo spoke with me about his foundation and quest to build schools and refurbish hospitals and clinics in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo. He knows the nation needs big changes, but also knows the way to do that and make it last is to change young minds and plant seeds—one at a time.
“We want to be able to impact life on a daily basis, but also it’s far beyond that,” Biyombo told NBC Sports. “I’ve seen a country that I lived in for years, every year it’s taken advantage of. Kids are not educated. The country is worth over $24 trillion [in natural resources] but is one of the poorest countries. Every day is a fight for these kids, you know…
“The goal is we want to give these kids opportunities I didn’t have,” Biyombo said. “Most of the kids want a way out; I want to give them a reason to stay. All the kids want a way out of the Congo, to me, it’s about [the nation’s oppressive] poverty. It’s hard, all this. I want to give them a reason to stay.
“That’s exposing them to the right information, putting in the right infrastructure so that they feel comfortable enough to be home, dreaming at home, living their dreams while their mother, father, family are there with them.”
It’s important work. Biyombo is changing many lives. Check out my full interview with him to see just how the veteran NBA big man is focused on the bigger picture, with a great attitude about life and providing opportunities.