Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is having an excellent start to the 2021 NBA finals, shooting 62.5 percent from the field on 18.7 shots per game. The shooting percentage has allowed him to score 34.3 points over the first three games of the series.
Antetokounmpo’s production over the first three games has been substantially better than the previous 15 playoff games, where he shot 52.5 percent from the field on 18 shots per game. The shooting percentage allows him to average 24.9 points per game during this span.
Let’s take a look at the catalyst behind Milwaukee Bucks two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s great start in the 2021 NBA Finals.
But why is Antetokounmpo performing better in the NBA finals? The answer is Phoenix Suns’ forward, Jae Crowder. Crowder has chosen to crowd Antetokounmpo’s space when he is defending him.
For example, during the second quarter of game two, Antetokounmpo was dribbling the ball up the middle of the court. Once he got to the free-throw line, Jae Crowder rotated over to defend Antetokounmpo, but he chose to close his air space by standing less than a foot away. Crowder’s action led Antetokounmpo to try to go around him. Antetokounmpo’s decision allowed him to do a euro step for a layup.
Crower’s strategy has encouraged Antetokounmpo to drive to the basket more often when he is defending him. Unfortunately, Antetokounmpo performs best when he is closer to the basket. Antetokounmpo has made 72.5 percent of his shots in the restricted area since 2013 on 9.1 shots per game.
The shooting percentage has propelled him to average 13.2 points per game in the restricted area: 40 percent of his scoring output. Antetokounmpo has continued to succeed in the finals as he has made 92.9 percent of his shots in the restricted area on 9.3 attempts per game, generating 17.4 points: 50.7 percent of his scoring output.
Therefore, Antetokounmpo has shot 75 percent from the field on four shots in 13.4 partial possessions per game, with Crowder as his defender. He has averaged 9.3 points per game on Crowder.
If Crowder wants to have better defensive success against Antetokounmpo, he should give him space, as Antetokounmpo struggles to make shots outside the restricted area. Antetokounmpo has shot 34.2 percent outside of the restricted area since 2013 on 7.9 shots. Antetokounmpo has continued to struggle during the finals, shooting 28.3 percent outside the restricted area on six attempts per game.
If Crowder can’t make this adjustment, Suns head coach Monty Williams should have Deandre Ayton guard Antetokounmpo exclusively. Ayton has chosen to give Antetokounmpo 5-to-10 feet of space during his 18.7 partial possessions per game that he has guarded Antetokounmpo.
For example, Antetokounmpo has the ball on the right wing during the first quarter of game two of the NBA finals. His defender, Ayton, chose to give him more than five feet of space by standing near the elbow.
This space led Antetokounmpo to take a three, which he missed. Ayton’s strategy has worked as Antetokounmpo has shot 44 percent from the field against him on 8.3 shots. If Head Coach Williams chooses to have Ayton guard Antetokounmpo all game, Jae Crowder should guard Brook Lopez.
Brook Lopez is a player who has taken over 53.3 percent of his shots from behind the arc during his three seasons in Milwaukee, averaging 5.1 per game; at least 89.4 percent of those shots were catch and shoots, as he has averaged 4.6 per game.
Unfortunately, Brook Lopez has been a below-average shooter in this role, converting 33.3 percent of his catch and shoots. The catch and shoots have been the catalyst for him only shooting 34.3 percent from behind the arc. Lopez is a much easier defensive matchup for Crowder as he will take low percentage shots.
The Suns’ strategy to defend Antetokounmpo is simplistic: give him space to increase the likelihood that he would shoot a jump shot; however, if you try to close Giannis’s air space, it will encourage him to drive to the basket, which increases his chances of success for the Milwaukee Bucks.