LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Soon, Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo is likely to win the 2019-20 NBA MVP award for the second consecutive season.
And the timing of the award will create a striking juxtaposition because the Bucks and Antetokounmpo might not even be in the playoffs – and Antetokounmpo is not playing like an MVP.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t the regular-season MVP. It means he is struggling now – and has been since the Bucks arrived here – and if he doesn’t start playing like the MVP, the top-seeded Bucks will exit in the second round and perhaps even get swept by the Miami Heat.
Milwaukee trails Miami 3-0 in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, and Game 4 is Sunday.
It was anticipated that the oddness of playing in a bubble with no fans and no home-court advantage would create unexpected results. But even this is jarring.
Against Miami, Antetokounmpo is averaging 22.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and seven assists. The scoring and assists are below his season averages as are his shooting numbers – just 45.1 percent from the field, 15.4 percent on three-pointers and 54.1 percent on free throws.
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In Miami’s 115-100 victory in Game 3 on Friday, Antetokounmpo had just 21 points on 7-for-21 shooting, including 0-for-7 on threes. He was 2-for-7 in the fourth quarter when the Heat outscored the Bucks 40-13.
“I thought he did a lot of things well, but we’ve all got to do a little bit better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
In a team game, it might not be fair to pin success or failure on one player, but that’s also how the NBA works. In the playoffs, a team needs its best player at his best, and Antetokounmpo isn’t at his best. He is just 25 years old, and he is going through the process of learning and growth in the postseason. It’s not easy to win in the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo found that out last season against Toronto in the conference finals, and Miami is focused on making basketball difficult for him.
The Heat not only put different defenders on Antetokounmpo (from Jae Crowder to Jimmy Butler to Bam Adebayo to Derrick Jones Jr.), but they use double-teams and swat at the basketball when he gets into the paint near the rim. And when he gets to the rim, they’re trying to foul him and make him earn points at the free-throw line. The Heat will take his free-throw shooting percentage over a dunk. They’re also daring him to shoot threes – and he’s not making them.
It’s a successful formula. During the regular season, the Bucks scored 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the court and against the Heat, it’s 100.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has put together a masterful game plan, and the Bucks have not yet produced enough counters. Finding ways to get Antetokounmpo more looks at the basket is necessary. It would also help if the Bucks could hit a few more three-pointers and prevent Miami from scoring as much.
“Wasn’t able to rebound the ball, wasn’t able to score the ball,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 3. “They were more disciplined than us. We lost the lead. Wasn’t able to keep our composure.”
He harped on the idea that Miami plays hard for 48 minutes – an indication that the Bucks have not.
It’s also quite possible Antetokounmpo is playing in pain. He twisted his ankle in the first quarter and could be seen grimacing after he landed following some shots. He and Budenholzer maintained everything is fine enough for him to be on the court. That’s may be true but that doesn’t mean he isn’t 100%.
And it’s impossible to measure the impact of the bubble on players, and the Bucks in particular whose decision not to play following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin nearly ended the NBA restart.
None of that discredits what Miami is doing. The Heat have earned each victory. The playoffs are often about matchups, and this isn’t a favorable one for Milwaukee.
The Heat were 2-1 against the Bucksduring the regular season and are about to send the expected MVP home short of his goal of reaching the Finals for the first time in his career.