Giannis Antetokounmpo, since he has transformed from a lanky, jumper-less project to an NBA All-Star, has never been easy to stop. At 6-foot-11, he can run and dribble like a guard. And now with muscles, he can bull-rush defenders, always holding an athletic advantage in some combination of ways.
Dealing with Antetokounmpo alone was already a perilous task, and that was before the Milwaukee Bucks surrounded him with an array of lethal outside shooters. Now he has more space than ever, leaving hapless defenders with no ideal options.
Teammates can’t help off their own assignments, or else he will pass and create open shots. The league hasn't quite figured it out, and the Wizards can be added to the mix after Saturday's 131-115 loss to Milwaukee.
“They’ve got shotmakers and with him, he draws so much attention,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. “But he can see over, when you double-team him he sees over it. When you play him 1-on-1, he battles you down and gets to the free throw line. It’s hard to stop.”
The Bucks poured in 17 threes on 39 shots, good for 43.6 percent. Eight Bucks players made at least one triple. Khris Middleton had four, while Brook Lopez and George Hill each made three.
Antetokounmpo didn't make any threes, yet he dropped 37 points to go along with 10 rebounds, two assists and a steal. He did it all in less than 33 minutes.
Where Antetokounmpo made most of his money was at the free throw line. Wizards defenders did their best to obstruct the rim as they ran step-for-step with him through the lane. Antetokounmpo initiated contact, and their best strategy was often to wrap him up to prevent easy buckets.
Antetokounmpo got to the line 17 times and never missed. He went a perfect 17-for-17, falling one free throw short of the record for a player against the Wizards/Bullets franchise. Only Rick Barry has gone perfect with more attempts. He went 18-for-18 in 1975.
Antetokounmpo’s brute strength and relentless path to the rim left the Wizards out of answers. Brooks tried to go small to combat the three-point shooting. He played center Thomas Bryant only five minutes in the second half, instead opting for Jeff Green at the five.
But the Bucks did a remarkable job of staying within coach Mike Budenholzer’s structure. They were patient zipping the ball back and forth across the perimeter, often making the extra pass to find an open three. Getting those open looks and making them consistently held the Wizards from building any real sense of momentum.
“Every time we had a run, they countered it with a big shot,” Brooks said. “They’re a good team. They have the best record for a reason.”
The Bucks boast the best record in the NBA at 38-18. They are only six wins away from matching their total from the entire 2017-18 season. They are on pace to improve from 44 wins in 2017-18 to 61 this year.
Budenholzer deserves a lot of credit for that leap, along with the addition of Lopez who has transformed into one of the best shooting big men in the NBA. Collectively, they have improved from one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league to one of the best. They are third in three-pointers made per game this season.
That single area of the game seems to be the key to unlocking what now appears to be a juggernaut and legitimate title contender. They have opened the floor up for Antetokounmpo, one of the most uniquely gifted slashers the league has ever seen.
The Wizards beat this Bucks team in Washington just weeks ago on Jan. 11. But Milwaukee didn't have Antetokounmpo for that game.
With Antetokounmpo in store, the Bucks pounded the Wizards and led by as much as 32. Washington saw just how difficult it would be to face Milwaukee in the playoffs, if they can indeed crack the top eight by the end of the season. If they can play themselves into a postseason berth, they may very well have to face the Bucks in the first round.
Wizards guard Bradley Beal wondered if the pummeling the Bucks delivered on Saturday night was with the bigger picture in mind.
“The playoffs aren't here yet, but that was definitely a message that they were sending,” Beal said.
Whether it had extra intention or not, a message was sent. The Wizards now realize firsthand just how formidable the improved Bucks are this season.
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