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Breaking down the Bucks: What do we make of the early returns of the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Damian Lillard partnership?

NEW YORK — Giannis Antetokounmpo understood why the reporter was asking him to look ahead — to think about what lessons his Bucks had learned in the course of squeaking out a 129-125 road win over the Brooklyn Nets that they might be able to carry into the playoffs.

Everybody knows that May and June will serve as the proving ground for a Milwaukee team that had championship aspirations before it swung a mega-deal for Damian Lillard. It’s just … well, those giant ice bags wrapped around the two-time MVP’s knees, and the bucket of ice he had his feet dunked in, were keeping him pretty well anchored in the reality of early November.

“It's too far,” Antetokounmpo said as he sat in the visiting locker room at Barclays Center on Monday, his body bearing the brunt of playing 35-plus minutes for the second straight game — something he hadn’t done since Games 4 and 5 of Milwaukee’s devastating Round 1 eviction by the Heat back in April. “We are … 76? Seventy-six games away from the postseason. It's far away.”

Through one lens, that distance can look daunting — an ultramarathon course whose finish line somehow seems to get farther away with each step you take. There’s a bright side, though, to the vast expanse between here and there: It can be pretty helpful to have a long runway when you’re figuring out how to build the plane. Which the Bucks — now 4-2, but with a negative point differential and, jarringly, one of the NBA’s worst defenses thus far — are very much still doing.

The opening weeks of the 2023-24 season have offered a reminder of just how much has changed for a Bucks team that had, for years, been one of the league’s most metronomic outfits. Swapping out Jrue Holiday, a vital member of Milwaukee’s 2021 title team, for Lillard, who was arguably the second-best offensive player in the entire league last season, justifiably gets top billing. The shifts spread far and wide beyond that, though.

Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, left, during the second half Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

Holiday’s one of five members of Milwaukee’s 2023 postseason rotation gone, with Grayson Allen, Joe Ingles, Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews all wearing new uniforms. Lillard arrived just before media day. Malik Beasley, last seen on the fringes of the Lakers’ playoff rotation, now starts alongside him. Cameron Payne, signed just after the start of training camp, backs him up. The lone holdover in the backcourt mix, MarJon Beauchamp, barely cracked 700 minutes as a rookie.

All those newcomers are taking their cues from first-year head coach Adrian Griffin, a longtime assistant hired off the Raptors’ bench this summer — reportedly with Antetokounmpo’s blessing — to replace Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud molded Milwaukee into a perennial power and helmed the franchise’s first championship winner in 50 years; he also presided over enough subsequent postseason shortcomings that ownership opted to look for a new voice in the locker room.

That’s a word that came up a lot with the Bucks on Monday: “new.”

“It is new for everybody,” Lillard told reporters after scoring 21 points and dishing seven assists against Brooklyn. “It's a new coaching staff. It’s not like I'm just the only guy that's new to this — it’s a new staff, and a lot of things that they would like to see us do is not natural for a lot of guys, just as far as the cutting, the spacing, things like that. So it's going to take time.”

That’s true on both ends of the floor. As seamlessly as it seemed Lillard and Antetokounmpo would fit together as partners in the two-man game, both in theory and in preseason practice, Milwaukee has yet to lean into that pick-and-roll pairing in the early going. Perhaps as a result, the Bucks have yet to find much of an offensive rhythm overall, with Lillard — taking a career-low 14.2 shots per game and posting his lowest usage rate since 2015 — still, as he put it after the game, “finding where I fit in, in a way where I can maximize who I am.”

“I think his intentions are great,” Griffin said of Lillard. “He's trying to be a great teammate. He's trying to make the right reads. But at the same time, you know, him shooting the ball is what we need. Him being aggressive. He’s done that at times, and I think at times you see that he’s a little hesitant, and he doesn't — I mean, I don't want to put words in his mouth — but he's almost too unselfish at times. But we just need him to be Dame, you know? Be who you are. That's good enough. That’s more than enough for us.”

Without Lillard unleashed, though, the Bucks’ collective shooting has dipped virtually across the board. They’re also 20th in offensive rebounding rate, and they’ve been ghastly in transition, despite employing perhaps the sport’s most destructive open-court force in Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee’s new-look starting lineup — Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Beasley, stretch 5 Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton — has been outscored through six games and is scoring just one measly point per possession outside of garbage time.

(That lineup has played only 43 minutes, thanks in part to Middleton still being on a minutes restriction after offseason knee surgery. The Bucks are trying to be smart about bringing Middleton along slowly, even if it hurts. “You know, as a coach, I wish I could have him for 40 minutes out there,” Griffin said before the game. “Because he’s the glue that kind of keeps us together.”)

All units featuring Giannis and Dame, two players with a combined 14 All-NBA appearances between them, are scoring just 104.5 points-per-100 — a league-worst level of offensive efficiency. This was not the picture the Bucks had in mind.

In spite of all that, though, the Bucks still rank a respectable 12th in the NBA in points scored per possession. That number’s been fueled largely by a steady march to the foul line — Antetokounmpo and Lillard rank first and third in the league in free-throw attempts per game, generating more than 19 between them — and by the immutable law of NBA physics that a superstar only stays bottled up for so long. They’ve taken turns: Lillard hanging 39 on the 76ers on opening night and popping for 30 on 15 shots against the Knicks, Antetokounmpo going for 33 in 32 minutes to beat Miami and scoring 13 of his 36 in the fourth quarter to hold off Brooklyn.

The idea wasn’t to alternate, though; it was to dominate. And right now, the Bucks’ offense looks less like a smashing symphony of synergy and more like a group that is, at best, just the sum of its parts.

“I think right now, because of the ability that we have, we’re able to make something out of these situations,” Lillard said. “And the effort is there, trying to do what's being asked of us. But it's not going to happen off the rip.

“It’s a lot of things out there that's kind of … you know … mucky,” he added. “And it gets ugly at times, because it's just not natural for us as a unit yet. But I think it'll just get better.”

The muckiness also extends to the defensive end, where Milwaukee is not only fielding a below-average unit for the first time since the Jason Kidd era, but can presently only dream of mediocrity. After giving up 125 points in 101 possessions to a Nets team led by true hooping legend Cam Thomas, the Bucks sit 27th in defensive efficiency; the three teams beneath them (Washington, San Antonio, Portland) are a combined 6-15 on the season.

It doesn’t help when offensive issues bleed over. When that disjointed station-to-station offense produces either turnovers or missed shots, opponents are hitting the gas and forcing the veteran Bucks to prove they’re willing to get back and stop the ball. So far, they haven’t: the Bucks rank dead last in how often they’re letting teams get out in transition and how many points they’re giving up per transition play.

The bigger issues, though, have come in the half-court, where Griffin — for years a key defensive assistant in Toronto under Nick Nurse — wants to nudge the Bucks out of the drop-coverage-dominated conservatism of the Budenholzer era and toward a more varied, versatile and havoc-wreaking style of defense. The early returns have been rocky.

Bud’s defenses prioritized protecting the rim by stationing the mammoth Lopez in front of it. Guards were expected to slither over the top of picks, stay connected to ball-handlers to prevent them from feeling comfortable enough to step into rhythm jumpers and funneling them into either Lopez or Antetokounmpo, forever looming as a help defender on the weak side. Those defenses routinely finished at or near the top of the league in a slew of defensive categories. They also rarely generated turnovers and could be susceptible to high-volume, pull-up jump shooters, especially in the wrong postseason matchups. (Like, say, against Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum.)

Griffin came into the season looking to diversify the menu, with a particular emphasis on applying more pressure on the ball and demanding more activity at the point of attack.

“I do foresee — just because the players are so great in this league — that we need it all,” Griffin said. “We need our bigs in drop. We need our bigs up. You need to be great switching. You need to be fluid across the board … and I think we have the ability to do that.”

That diversification has included playing Lopez — all 7-feet, 280 pounds and 35 years of him — up at the level of ball screens and sometimes even trapping ball-handlers well beyond the 3-point arc. The shift did result in more disruption: Milwaukee forced turnovers on 15.7% of opponents’ offensive possessions and notched 17.8 deflections per game through the first four contests, both top-10 marks.

It came at a cost, though. A roster composed of some players who’d spent years playing a different style, others who’d just gotten here and several (chiefly Lillard and Beasley) who struggle to keep the ball in front has often looked confused about its responsibilities.

Miscommunications abounded in the first few games. The Hawks and Raptors, in particular, carved up coverages in which many Bucks seemed to be thinking rather than just playing, resulting in the kind of missed rotations that, with Lopez trapping on the perimeter, lead to open dunks and layups.

“We have to be more clear in what we’re trying to accomplish defensively and who we are going to let attack us, because you’ve got to live with something,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after getting blown out by a Raptors team that had previously been 29th in offensive efficiency. “You cannot stop everything … You’ve got to have tough conversations, too. Because some things don’t work.”

In their next game, against the Knicks to open the in-season tournament, Lopez returned to his customary drop coverage, with Griffin saying on TV that some of his players had called for it, and he listened. Through the first four games, Lopez had two blocks in 95 minutes. Against the Knicks, he had eight in 36, and — despite Jalen Brunson, one of those pull-up-shooting annihilators of drop coverage, pouring in a season-high 45 points — the Bucks had their best defensive performance of the season, and came away with the win.

Against Brooklyn, though, the Bucks again seemed to be searching for defensive consistency. Griffin opened the game with Lopez in a drop, which Thomas, Mikal Bridges and Lonnie Walker IV repeatedly exploited by dusting Milwaukee’s porous perimeter defense to rise up for pull-up jumpers. He dialed up a 2-3 zone to try to shut off dribble penetration, only to concede a steady diet of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. (Only the Jazz, Pelicans and Heat are playing more zone possessions per game than the Bucks this season, according to Synergy Sports’ game charting — a dramatic change from last season, when only the Celtics and Knicks went zone less frequently than Milwaukee.)

When Lopez gave way to the quicker Bobby Portis, Griffin instructed the Bucks to switch every screen. When Thomas and Bridges adjusted to that by hunting their preferred mismatches and cooking in space, he dialed up some more pressure, even running a second defender at Thomas on some late-game possessions. And with the game in the balance in the closing minutes, he shifted Antetokounmpo to center, trusting the former Defensive Player of the Year to get just enough stops to keep Brooklyn at bay. He did:

“Man … I mean, he's phenomenal,” Griffin said after the game. “He's a winner. Those are winning plays. When you say, ‘Is a guy a winner or not?’ he defines that, because he's willing to do whatever it takes for us to win as a team.”

On the other end, that meant Antetokounmpo assenting to act as a screener down the stretch:

“You’re just trying to find ways where those three guys are involved in the action — Dame [with] Giannis setting, or Giannis setting up Khris,” Griffin said after the game. “I mean, it's not rocket science. You’re just trying to get the ball in one of your three best players’ hands, especially going down the stretch.”

The Bucks brought in Lillard to have the keys in those moments, to turn Middleton into perhaps the league’s highest-class third option. On Monday, though, it was Dame spacing the floor while the more familiar partnership went to work and brought Milwaukee home.

“Being able to play through him in live-catch actions, when he's playing the pick-and-roll, Giannis is setting the screen, I’m on the weak side — you know, a lot of times, if they hug me, it's more space for them to play,” Lillard said. “And if they don't, I'm gonna get an opportunity to get a clean look. In that action, there's a lot of things that we can do out of it.”

Middleton acknowledged after the game that seeing Damian Lillard — Damian Freaking Lillard — just spotting up on the weak side still feels weird. The good kind, though.

“We're still trying to get adjusted to him, with the talent that he has and the way he plays, and vice versa,” said Middleton, who finished with 15 points and four assists in 21 minutes as he continues to work his way back to full health. “But if you play basketball the right way, so many guys will get great open looks.”

With more reps — Giannis, remember, only played one full preseason game as he managed his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery — they believe those looks will start to come more and more often.

“Each step, I get more comfortable playing with them,” Antetokounmpo said. “Because I’ve got to understand when they're gonna pass me the ball, and when I just got to get the heck out of the way.”

The Bucks are betting on that understanding coming with time — that the “flashes of what we can become” that Griffin has seen will grow steadier and steadier, that the spotty execution of the first six games will give way to greater consistency (“I don't think it's close to where it will be, at all,” Lillard said), and that this decorated core doesn’t have to completely redefine itself to rediscover its championship mettle.

“I don't think we're trying to find an identity — I think we know our identity,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think we’re trying to find what works. And we’ve got to be good at everything.”