HOUSTON – In their 112-108 loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday, the Milwaukee Bucks had their second lowest-scoring game of the season.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time NBA MVP, had little interest in talking about the offense.
Instead, he focused on the Bucks' defensive effort. After the loss to the Rockets, Antetokounmpo spent seven and a half minutes passionately explaining why the team needed to improve defensively to reach its ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship.
“Some nights the offense will be there, some nights it won't be there,” Antetokounmpo explained. “But your effort defensively has to be there. And defensively, our effort wasn't there. There was no pride. Guys were just driving the ball, moving in a straight line, getting to the paint, exaggerating assists, shooting 3s, going after offensive rebounds. “There was nothing. This wasn't the Milwaukee Bucks. This wasn't who we are.”
While Antetokounmpo analyzed the Bucks' defensive shortcomings and detailed why they need to be better on that side of the ball, his statement wasn't entirely accurate.
In the past, a poor defensive effort has not been up to the Bucks' standards. But this season, he is much closer to their level. Before Saturday's game, the Bucks ranked 21st in defensive rating, allowing teams to score 115.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
In the first half on Saturday, the Rockets scored 63 points. The Bucks trailed by 20 points in the first half. When the team returned for the second half, Bucks coach Adrian Griffin went with rookie winger Andre Jackson Jr. instead of Malik Beasley to fit in with the rest of the Bucks' typical starting lineup.
“In the second half, we were better,” Antetokounmpo said. “In the third quarter, we were better. In the fourth quarter, we were better. We won both quarters. Yeah, we went out there and competed. We made it tougher, we pre-switched, we got up the post, we got our hands on the ball, “We made it difficult for them, got every rebound we could. We made it difficult. That's what we are.”
“In the first half, we didn't do that. And that's not good, man. Because now we're playing a type of basketball, especially defensively, that's not us. We've got to be better. In order to win, we've got to be better. We can't just rely on “Our offense of scoring 130 points, 140 points every night. It's not going to work that way. It's not going to work that way.”
While the Bucks have a 25-11 record, Antetokounmpo has not been happy with the defensive effort this season, and he has become more vocal about the team's defensive struggles over the past few weeks. After the Bucks' fourth loss to the Indiana Pacers this season on Wednesday, Antetokounmpo spoke about the Bucks needing to stop relying on their ability to out-box teams and instead focus on the defensive end.
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The Bucks' defensive struggles in the first half brought Antetokounmpo's concerns back to the fore on Saturday and left him upset after the Bucks' loss to the Rockets.
“Pride. Pride. Pride. Pride. Like, we've got to take it personally,” Antetokounmpo said when asked how the Bucks' defense could improve this season. Whoever wants to play hard, plays hard. Whoever doesn't want to play hard has to make that decision. And even myself too. If I don't play hard, put me on the bench. There are times when I feel tired and I don't play as hard as I can, and there are times when I even give it my all. But we have to have the mindset that every time we step on the ground, we have to stop.
“That's how we're going to win. We're not going to win by getting into rhythm offensively. Obviously they were a difficult team because they changed everything up and you have to play one-on-one to be able to break down their defence. But we can't rely on that. We have to rely on getting stops. The players have to Playing harder, including me. It always starts with me. Always… including me. I have to be able, every time we get on the floor, to figure out ways to stop. Playing harder. That's it.”
When asked to explain something the Bucks could do better defensively, Antetokounmpo didn't hesitate.
“We can't die on screens. We die on screens, including me,” Antetokounmpo said. “I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus. That's why I keep saying including myself. always. It starts with me. I am the team leader. It always starts with me. I should be better, but we can't die on screens. What does that mean, because Bobby (Portis) and Brooke (Lopez) are back there? That we're going to – we're going to die on screens and let the guy get down and shoot the floater because Brock's going to save our butts? Is this how we will win the championship? No, this is not how we will win the championship.”
While the Bucks put up a strong second half and held the Rockets to 49 points in the final two quarters, Milwaukee certainly struggled navigating screens and preventing players from getting into the paint and all the way to the rim in the first half. The Rockets outscored the Bucks 18-6 in the final five minutes of the first half, and there were plenty of examples of the Bucks not being able to get off screens in pick-and-roll situations.
On this possession, Malik Beasley was tricked by Fred VanVleet and then caught on a screen by Alperin Chingone, leaving VanVleet open for a pull-up three.
While VanVleet took advantage of Beasley early in the final five minutes, he also took advantage of Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks struggled in transition defense throughout the first 36 games of the season, but that wasn't an issue with the team's possession. Antetokounmpo picked off VanVleet but then failed to stay close enough to him as he was dribbled off a screen by Şengün.
On the next defensive possession, Beasley was again caught on a screen and left his man. Beasley was so caught up on the screen that he elected to ditch his man and stick with the rolling big man, leaving Jalen Green alone in space on the right wing.
Griffin called a timeout after that jumper from Green in order to get his team to refocus their efforts defensively, but it didn't work.
Ninety seconds into the timeout, the Bucks gave up an offensive rebound and VanVleet immediately made them pay.
Damian Lillard chased down VanVleet on the dribble and forced the Rockets' guard off the 3-point line, but he didn't stay in enough contact with VanVleet to make it difficult for him as the possession progressed. Instead, VanVleet got around the dribble, got into the paint casually and then fed it to Şengün for a short shot from the right block.
On the next defensive possession, the Rockets used a guard screen at the top of the key. With two guards in the fray, the Bucks could have changed the move, which they tried to do, but Lillard wasn't aggressive enough, so Green passed him to the rim.
For Antetokounmpo, the Bucks' failings on defense aren't just about the effort of the players on the floor. If the Bucks want to improve their defense, it will require better tactics from Griffin as well.
“Now, defensively, we have to have a plan,” Antetokounmpo said. “What's our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open 3s? Are we going to let them get into the paint? When he takes over, are we going to stay with our team and play one-on-one? What's our strategy? Right now, we're giving everything. We're giving everything.” We give 3s. We give straight drives. We allow players to play in the post and feel comfortable. We give offensive rebounds.
“And when I say this, it includes me. Always, it starts with me. I'm part of all of that too. We have to be better. Even as a team, we have to figure out what works and strategize around the things that work. Like sometimes, you can't Stop everything. Sometimes, we're going to play a team that wants to shoot a lot of 3-pointers. We've got to get them into the paint. Sometimes, we're going to play teams that want to get into the paint. All of us, now we've got to mess up the game and show help and then we play. In “Sometimes, we're up against teams that want to knock down offensive rebounds, and they want to get a lot of rebounds, and we've got to come together as a team. We can't rely on Brock or Bobby. As a team, we've got to come back and get rebounds.”
While Antetokounmpo spent the entire postgame session discussing the Bucks' defensive shortcomings, he doesn't believe the Bucks are doomed to be a below-average defensive team. Instead, he feels that addressing the team's issues on that end of the field now will allow them to become a better defensive team and get to where they need to be before the playoffs start.
“At the end of the day, this is not the end of the world,” Antetokounmpo said. “It's not the end of the world, for sure. It's the beginning for us to go in the direction we want to go. This is not who we are. This is not who we are. And if we continue at this pace, I don't think we'll get where we want to get.”
“We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust each other better. We have to coach better. In everything, everyone has to be better. Everyone. It starts with the equipment manager.” He has to wash our clothes better. The substitutes have to be better. The team leaders have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have a better strategy. We have to be better…
“We have four months to improve, so let's see.”
(Photo by Giannis Antetokounmpo: Tim Warner/Getty Images)
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