Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant can score 49 points on pretty much anybody, but typically, when he’s on his way to that sort of night, opposing coaches try to counter by putting their most accomplished defender on him (if they didn’t start the night out that way). Mike Budenholzer didn’t do that on Tuesday. As Durant shredded his defense over and over and over again, the Milwaukee Bucks coach stuck with P.J. Tucker until foul trouble forced Khris Middleton to take on the assignment. Budenholzer’s former Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupied his typical space as a weak-side help defender.
Milwaukee’s defense has thrived with him in that role for three seasons, but Budenholzer’s reluctance to adjust when situations demand it has contributed to back-to-back postseason disappointments. Last season in particular, Jimmy Butler ran wild over the Bucks late in games largely because Antetokounmpo never guarded him. The Bucks corrected that mistake this postseason. Antetokounmpo guarded Butler throughout the first round, and Miami’s star shot only 25 percent from the field with the former Defensive Player of the Year as his primary defender.
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Now, Antetokounmpo wants the same opportunity against Durant in Thursday’s Game 6. “I want to take on the challenge,” he told reporters after Game 5. “I would love to go into Game 6 being able to guard him and if coach wants me to do that, I’m ready for it.”
Physically speaking, Antetokounmpo is one of the few players on Earth with the physical proportions to challenge Durant’s shot. He even blocked it in a regular-season game in May. Durant has made 3-of-8 field goal attempts with Durant as his primary defender in this series. Most of those attempts have come off switches.
Antetokounmpo rarely defends star scorers in isolation, and as a result, it’s hard to tell how good he really is at it. Last season, he defended 40 isolation possessions and held those opponents to a staggeringly low 0.425 points per possession on those plays. This season, he defended 65 isolation possessions and allowed 1.062 points per possessions, a far worse number.
Some of that is explainable. Milwaukee tinkered schematically all season. The defense behind him wasn’t as consistent or as strong. But defenses also found weaknesses in Antetokounmpo’s game. He struggles to fight over screens, for instance, and Butler took advantage of that in the meager success he had against him.
The Nets are merciless in hunting mismatches. They would surely exploit this same defect knowing that it would likely lead to either good mid-range looks for Durant or foul trouble for Antetokounmpo. In the process, they would remove Antetokounmpo from his post on the weak side, giving Brooklyn far easier access to easy points at the rim.
These are the pros and cons of such a move that Budenholzer needs to weigh before Game 6. There are viable arguments for and against letting Giannis guard Durant, and with the season now on the line, the Bucks might figure that it’s worth a try simply because nothing they did in Game 5 worked. Giannis wants the chance to do this. It’s probably at least worth a try, if only for the opening stretch to gauge its effectiveness. Durant just dropped 49 points on them in Game 5. Things can’t exactly get worse in Game 6.