The Warriors lose by only 9 points to the Milwaukee Bucks, who are currently considered the best team in the NBA. That’s got to be some sort of moral victory for these Warriors, who are currently 9-30 and are the worst team in the Western Conference.
Alec Burks led the team off the bench with his 19 points, followed by Damion Lee and Glenn Robinson III (15 points), and Willie Cauley-Stein and Alen Smailagic (10 points).
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists. He was initially made to bleed for his points by a surprisingly robust Warriors defense, but he broke out in the second half and took over — exactly what a reigning MVP and the favorite to win his second consecutive MVP is expected to do.
1) The Warriors defense surprisingly held up against the Bucks
The Bucks are one of the deadliest offensive teams in the league, if not the deadliest. The presence of an offensive unicorn such as Giannis allows them to run a system predicated on spreading out shooters around him. Much like how Stephen Curry is the fulcrum around which the Warriors offense revolves around, Giannis is similarly the central cog around which the Bucks offense highly depends upon. It’s a simplistic take on a deceptively complex offensive system, but the point is that it works to great effect.
Going into tonight’s game, the Bucks were ranked third in offensive rating (113.7), second in team field-goal percentage (.481), first in fastbreak points (18.7 per game), and third in points in the paint (51.2 per game). Considering that the Warriors have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league (but not the worst, as they have shown improvement in that area), it was widely expected that the Bucks’ highly-efficient offensive attack would make mincemeat out of the Warriors defense.
That largely wasn’t the case tonight. After the first half, the Warriors held the Bucks to just 16-of-48 shooting from the field (33.3 percent) and 4-of-23 from beyond the arc (17.4 percent). They posted a defensive rating of 94.7 at halftime. The Bucks continued to shoot well below expectations, and by the end of the night put up final shooting splits of .402/.220/.875, with their 22 percent from beyond the arc coming on a 9-of-41 clip.
The Warriors’ defensive rating after the game: 101.9 — much, much better than their 111.1 rating for the season.
This is the kind of defensive performance you’d want to see from this version of the Warriors, especially against the best team in the league. An actual win would’ve done wonders for such a young and impressionable team, but Steve Kerr is sure to point at this defensive display as a moral victory and something they can use as a reference point going forward.
2) The Warriors offense? More of the same
While the defense was a surprising sight to behold, the Warriors offense continued to suffer from a lack of elite talent. Yes, they have Alec Burks — but he can’t be more than a serviceable scorer who is their best bucket-getter by default. Damion Lee isn’t a consistent shot creator — he needs to be set up, or to be that spot-up option who operates at his best when a Curry or Klay Thompson garners most of the attention from defenses. Glenn Robinson III has his moments of excellence, but they aren’t consistent enough.
The Warriors finished the night with .379/.395/850 shooting splits. The overall field-goal percentage is, as expected against the number one defensive team in the league in the Bucks, nothing all too surprising. Their final offensive rating after the game of 93.3 was horrendous, but that is to be expected considering their personnel and the defensive pedigree of their opponents.
But that 39.5 percent clip from beyond the arc (on 15-of-38 shooting) from the Warriors was the one pleasant surprise. It kept them in the game, especially during stretches where the Bucks threatened to pull away with a huge double-digit lead. It seemed like every run from the Bucks would get answered by a 3-point shot from the Warriors.
Anomaly? Perhaps. But it’s something the Warriors can look at and build off of, in the same manner they can take this defensive effort and learn from it as this long and arduous season approaches its halfway point.
3) The Alen Smailagic experience
Not many 19-year old Serbian projects become fan favorites before they’ve even spent one minute on an NBA court, but Alen Smailagic managed to do exactly that. So when he finally made his debut several weeks ago, Warriors fans were stoked to see what the man who Bob Myers gave up two second-round draft picks for was capable of.
His contributions since then have been sporadic: the occasional layup, the hustle rebound, and a missed defensive assignment or two (or three). It’s prudent to not expect too much from someone who clearly has a lot to learn and who is clearly a developmental project.
But in 11 minutes of playing time against the Bucks, Smailagic clearly had his best performance of his young NBA career. He finished with 10 points and 4 rebounds, on a 4-of-7 clip from the field. More importantly, he bravely drove against Brook Lopez for a layup in this sequence:
Alen Smailagic makes the driving layup on Brook Lopez (he then hit a corner 3 over Brook on the next possession). Future MVP obviously pic.twitter.com/nxESHbelvm— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) January 9, 2020
And followed it up with this spot-up three that sent Chase Center into a frenzy:
Smiley getting everyone hyped pic.twitter.com/Y0y0Su3pqt— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 9, 2020
4) The Jacob Evans III conundrum
One can’t help but feel sorry for Jacob Evans. The late first-round pick wasn’t really given much run last season, playing behind a depth chart that was dominated by superstars and veteran role-players. He failed to show the requisite skills and ability to be an immediate contributor off the bench. He was relegated to being an end-of-the-bench spectator/cheerleader and a G League regular.
This season was supposed to be his chance to show what he could do, especially with Curry being out. The Warriors put an emphasis on developing Evans as their primary ball-handler and playmaker in the second unit, and had high hopes on him developing a serviceable jumper. To be fair to Evans, he showed signs of improvement early in the season.
But Evans got injured. He missed plenty of time, and his development hit a major snag. Upon his return, Evans showed clear signs of regression. His jumper reverted to being wildly inconsistent. His playmaking ability was practically nonexistent, in its place a penchant for being indecisive and hesitant. And yet, the Warriors have no choice but to have him on this roster, since they picked up Evans’ $2.017 million option for the 2020-21 season.
Evans played nearly 19 minutes against the Bucks, and the amount of playing time he was given was nowhere near commensurate to his contributions — 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting, with 3 turnovers.
Sooner or later, the Warriors will have to make a decision on Evans’ future with the team, especially if he continues to regress and/or show no signs of clear improvement. With Dub Nation already being up in arms over the controversial decision to waive Marquese Chriss, heads will have to proverbially roll, and Evans’ head is the sore thumb that is massively sticking out as of the moment.
Trading him is an option — but the Warriors will be hard pressed to find a team who is willing to take on Evans’ contract without being expected to give up an asset of their own.
Next up: The Warriors travel to Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.