Let’s perform a theoretical exercise.
A Warriors-Bucks NBA Finals is well within the realm of possibility. Should the former champions and the defending champions meet, there’s going to be one looming question that will hang over the Warriors’ heads.
How do you contain Giannis Antetokounmpo?
A regular-season matchup is by no means definitively conclusive nor a completely accurate forecast of what a matchup will look like during the Finals. But in the Bucks’ 118-99 drubbing of the Warriors, there were plenty of warning signs and red flags that emerged — almost all of them coming from Antetokounmpo.
This must be prefaced, however, by the absence of Draymond Green. That is a fact that cannot be ignored. Whether the Warriors would’ve won with Green on the floor isn’t a guarantee, but there’s no question that he would’ve immensely helped in several areas.
Without Green, the Warriors’ center depth is, to say the least, glaringly thin.
Kevon Looney is more than just a serviceable defender; what he lacks in length at the five position, he makes up for with astute positioning and strength. But against a force of nature, Looney was just plainly outmatched. He simply isn’t enough as a single-coverage ballast against someone as tall, strong, and relentless as Antetokounmpo.
A dirty little statistical secret about Looney — who has been an otherwise dependable starting center for the Warriors throughout this season — has been his propensity to foul. He’s fouling at a rate of 6.6 fouls per 100 possessions — a full one percentage point higher than his rate last season. Among 148 players who have played at least 35 games and who average at least 20 minutes per game, Looney’s fouls per 100 possessions is fifth-highest.
Looney had to sit out early against Antetokounmpo because of two early fouls — both occurring during the first minute of the game.
That left Nemanja Bjelica as the sole backup center absorbing the non-Looney minutes at the five. Bjelica has glaring deficiencies while defending against the pick-and-roll, let alone on perimeter switches. He is marginally better as a stationary low-post defender, but he was severely outmatched against Antetokounmpo in the post.
Throwing out a small-ball lineup against Antetokounmpo? Forget about it.
As many other teams have tried in the past, the Warriors sent plenty of help toward Antetokounmpo, who is near impossible to contain in single coverage.
Help came from all sorts of directions: from the weak-side corner, from the nail, and from the wings. But Antetokounmpo flashed his vastly improved passing and playmaking chops, magnified by his supporting cast — almost all of which seemed to be able to hit their shots from the perimeter.
Throwing everything plus the kitchen sink against Antetokounmpo seems to be a losing proposition nowadays. He has developed the requisite vision to know which of his teammates are left open, which empowers him to flash his improved passing — a scary sight indeed, not only for the Warriors but for the rest of the league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 11 assists. Most of them were from taking advantage of the Warriors defense having to help on drives (i.e., forming walls), and help-side rotations/doubles toward the low post, which left shooters open.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) January 14, 2022
Steve Kerr w/ the soundbite: pic.twitter.com/FoRKhrHY5C
The Bucks have also doubled down on the synergistic partnership between Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Arguably the most potent two-man action in the league involves the Bucks’ two best players.
The Middleton-Antetokounmpo empty side pick-and-roll — shown above — is deadly. The Warriors had to pick their poison: either contain Middleton, who is dangerous as a pull-up shooter, or stick to Antetokounmpo, an elite roll man and lob finisher. The absence of any sort of help from the strong-side corner magnifies the potency of this action further.
Again, there is no guarantee of a different outcome in an alternate timeline where Green is available for this game. But Green is a defensive savant, able to recognize opposing teams’ sets and organizing his teammates to account for them accordingly.
His presence as a help defender and roamer may have nullified the effectiveness of Middleton-Antetokounmpo screen-and-roll actions, and he may have set the tone as a weak-side zoner or as the low man on help-side rotations — which may have left fewer shooters open on the perimeter for Antetokounmpo to pass to.
Antetokounmpo is building a strong case for being the MVP frontrunner at the halfway mark of the season, averaging 28.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists, on 54/28/70 shooting splits and 61.8% True Shooting.
The Warriors, meanwhile, continue to scuffle offensively; they go into the halfway mark of the season 13th in offensive rating (110.1). Over the last 21 games — starting from their first matchup on November 30 against the Phoenix Suns — they’ve only been able to put up an offensive rating of 107.3 — 26th over that time period.
Stephen Curry is struggling. The entire team has been off the mark (52.8% effective field-goal percentage, 13th over the last 21 games). There have been more lineup configurations and rotation changes over the past several games compared to the beginning of the season — mostly due to health and safety protocols, injuries, and the reintegration Klay Thompson. They’ve ceased to be the beacons of stability and consistency.
A full-strength Warriors squad — with Green there to organize the offense and marshal the defense — may fare better against the likes of Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, and there is still a full half-season to go for chinks in the armor to be fixed, adjustments to be made, and for people to get healthy and reacclimated to the system.
But the threats are increasingly getting stronger and more prominent. A red-hot Memphis Grizzlies team is emerging as a threat in the Western Conference. Antetokounmpo and the Bucks seem to be tailor-made to give this Warriors roster a difficult time, should they face each other down the line in the Finals.
This late first-half stretch of adversity is giving the Warriors plenty of things to think about.