Welcome to “One Play!” Throughout the 2022-23 NBA season, our TSN staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal their bigger meaning.
Today, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo takes the spotlight.
The Pelicans didn’t have an answer for Antetokounmpo on Monday.
Antetokounmpo needed only 33 minutes to lead the Bucks to victory with a 42-point, 10-rebound double-double. He barely missed en route to his fourth 40-point game of the season, shooting 12-for-17 from the field and 17-for-22 from the free-throw line.
You know what that means — to the film room!
The play: Antetokounmpo’s audition tape for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
Breakdown: The Bucks go small(er) with Antetokounmpo at center instead of Brook Lopez. Surrounding him are four perimeter players in Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Joe Ingles.
Despite being at a significant size advantage, Holiday picks up Zion Williamson. Allen, Connaughton and Ingles match up with their position, leaving Antetokounmpo to defend the 6-foot-11 and 265-pound Jonas Valaciunas.
The Pelicans enter the ball to Valanciunas around the free-throw line. He almost immediately dribbles toward Williamson and hands the ball to him at the right elbow. Holiday gets caught up trying to fight through screens, so Antetokounmpo switches onto Williamson, then stands his ground and makes himself as big as possible when Williamson enters the paint.
Williamson tries to score over Antetokounmpo, but his shot doesn’t even draw iron. (Holiday breathing down his neck probably didn’t help.)
Valanciunas gets the offensive rebound, but guess who’s there to block his putback attempt? Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo swats the ball out to Trey Murphy III on the perimeter, giving the Pelicans another shot opportunity.
The ball once again finds its way to Valanciunas, who is still being defended by Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo doesn’t fall for his slow but highly effective pump fake and gets his body in front of Valanciunas on his drive to the basket.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t block his shot this time, but he does enough to force another miss.
If all of that wasn’t impressive enough, Antetokounmpo saves his best for last, meeting Williamson at the summit and forcing another miss without fouling.
This is some textbook verticality:
That’s not one, not two, not three, but four stops against two of the most physically imposing players in the NBA who, oh, by the way, happen to live in the paint.
The best part is Antetokounmpo still somehow has enough in the tank to take off in a full sprint when the Bucks finally secure the ball and draw a foul, one of 14 the Pelicans committed against him on the night.
Look at where Antetokounmpo is compared to the two guys he was just battling with:
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Why it matters: It’s a jaw-dropping sequence, but more than anything, it’s a reminder of what makes Antetokounmpo an all-time defender.
Yes, he already has one Defensive Player of the Year award and five All-Defensive selections to his name, and, no, he doesn’t usually guard the opposing team’s best player, but the list of players in NBA history who impact that end of the court the way he does is … not long.
Antetokounmpo’s defensive value extends far beyond the traditional box score. For example, he’s averaging only one block per game this season. That ranks 27th in the league, trying him with a group of players that includes a pair of guards in Kyrie Irving and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
But guess what? Opponents are shooting 45.7 percent against Antetokounmpo around the basket, which is 19.2 percentage points lower than expected. That’s basically the best mark in the league.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t pick up many steals and deflections either, but he’s perfectly capable of stepping out to the perimeter and switching onto most players, the combination of which makes him practically impossible to play off the court and allows the far more limited Lopez to play to his strengths as a shot-blocker.
The trio of Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Lopez makes the Bucks one of the most dominant defensive teams in the league, but Antetokounmpo’s versatility is what brings it all together.
Oh, and Antetokounmpo is doing all of that while averaging a career-best 31.0 points and 5.2 assists. It’s no wonder he’s widely considered to be the best player in the NBA right now.