Giannis' aggressive style of play finds him on the deck -- a lot

Antetokounmpo avoids injury despite multiple trips, tumbles and tangles

MILWAUKEE — Fall down 10 times, stand up 11.

Anyone who remembers that quirky Dwyane Wade sneaker commercial from early in the Miami Heat star’s hard-knocks career might notice some inflation in the numbers. But math is math and it has become fairly common for Giannis Antetokounmpo to exceed Wade’s “fall seven, stand eight” resilience as he bangs his way through what potentially will be a second consecutive Kia MVP season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Against the Boston Celtics at Fiserv Forum, in TNT’s early game Thursday, Antetokounmpo unofficially fell or got knocked to the floor 10 times. Whether fouled, fouling or jostled off-balance in some physical play, that’s how often the Greek Freak crashed to the court on plays that showed up in the advanced box score on this site. There might have been more, say, a momentary trip over a baseline cameraman, or a stumble chasing the ball into the VIP seats.

Collisions of this sort — sometimes tangled with an opponent, always losing in a battle with gravity — aren’t out of ordinary across the league. But in their frequency and their cumulative impact, they’re beginning to loom as one of the few things that could derail Milwaukee’s marvelous season.

There’s a presence at Bucks games, either in the stands, on the scoreboard or during commercial breaks on their broadcasts, that drives home the potential. David Gruber, longtime personal-injury lawyer/Bucks superfan, is a sponsor whose catchphrase booms over the P.A. system and pops up in the TV games: “One call, that’s all.” Well, how ‘bout this: One fall, that’s all.

As in, one fall, that’s it.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a surprise that Antetkokounmpo hasn’t yet gone splat! Given his size (6-foot-11, 240 pounds), his lack of padding by body-fat percentage, the distance he has to fall to go from vertical to horizontal and the endless acute angles at which his long limbs can get twisted as he hurtles toward the hardwood, he would seem a candidate for repeated extended layoffs by now.

So far, though, the Bucks don’t sound too worried.

“You can always kind of tell, even when they go down hard, if someone is going to be OK or not,” veteran shooter Kyle Korver said.

You mean, if they bounce or not? Antetokounmpo might look like he’s made of rubber or plastic, but c’mon, that’s plain ol’ flesh and bones.

Korver laughed. “Certainly, he plays so hard and he knows one speed,” he said, “and that’s just full throttle right at the basket. And he gets hit, he gets fouled a lot. He shot 20 free throws [against the Celtics] and probably could have shot a bunch more. But that’s his game. You’re not going to change that.”

Said center Brook Lopez: “He plays so hard, that’s just kind of the way it is. Fortunately it’s very rare where it’s awkward or anything like that. He has such great balance and control in the way he plays the game, pretty typically he’s in control at least a little bit when he goes down. So that’s a silver lining.”

Korver said there is a skill to falling without breaking and his remarkable teammate seems to have it. “I mean, I put my kids in gymnastics really young just to learn how to fall,” Korver said. “A lot of people don’t [know how]. Some guys try to take charges, they get hurt. It’s like an art form.”

Antetokounmpo shared after the Bucks’ 128-123 victory that, in his view, all the falling, flailing and flopping in the league is overdone. These are, after all, finely tuned, young, strong athletes who often topple over as if tapped by a feather.

“The NBA, the way it’s built, it wants you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said. “It wants you to, y’know, be weak kind of. Because if you’re strong and going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re like just flopping … they’re going to call the foul. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I want to do. I’m just going to try to go through contact.

“There are going to be times guys are going to grab me or push me. I’ve got to do a better job of showing it more so the refs can see guys are holding me, pushing me, just being physical.”

He showed it plenty Thursday. No official stat exists for how many times a player falls to the floor in a game — which seems like a rather glaring hole in the sport’s analytics circa 2020. Such a tracking stat could be broken down by defensive tumbles (charges attempted and drawn), offensive upendings (both fouls and no-calls) and even 50/50 falls, such as diving for an extra possession or tying up an opponent to force a jump ball. The numbers crunchers in this case aren’t keeping up.

Last spring, focusing on a Boston vs. Philadelphia game in March, ESPN.com did a piece on Joel Embiid’s tendency to fall after the Sixers center went down nine times. A forensic review of his games found that Embiid averaged 3.3 times falls, flops and follow-throughs to the floor in 2018-19. That meant he went down about once every 10 minutes.

Players such as Blake Griffin (once per 14 minutes), Russell Westbrook (once per 12) and James Harden (once per eight) had their own high frequencies of falling, by the story’s calculations.

Well, Antetokounmpo went down once every 3.5 minutes against the Celtics. Here is a rundown of his fall-downs:

11:22, first quarter: Pushed to the floor by Gordon Hayward as he tried to post up.

9:34, 1Q: Daniel Theis knocks down Antetokounmpo in the lane.

11:38, 2Q: Fouled and bumped by Brad Wanamaker on a spin move in the lane.

1:04, 2Q: Banged by Semi Ojeleye as Antetokounmpo attacks the paint.

9:34, 3Q: Drives right side of the lane, toppled by Jayson Tatum.

6:39, 3Q: With Brook Lopez’s 3 FGA in the air, Antetokounmpo cuts to the hoop for rebounding position. Marcus Smart throws his rear end into the Greek Freak’s legs for a “Timber!” moment. The Bucks star gets whistled for a loose ball foul as his coach, Mike Budenholzer, reacts in disbelief.

9:55, 4Q: Fouled to the floor while driving in isolation against Hayward.

8:56, 4Q: Under the rim with Enes Kanter, he goes up for a putback and gets hit from behind, landing awkwardly on his back.

6:31, 4Q: Ojeleye backpedals into the paint as Antetokounmpo cuts left, and the defender goes down before contact. At which point Antetokounmpo trips over the prone Celtic.

1:19, 4Q: Marcus Smart isn’t set and gets called for a blocking foul, going down from the contact. Antetokounmpo inadvertently steps on Smart’s hip and falls too.

In all that down-on-the-court time, the moment that rankled the Bucks most was the fake charge drawn by Ojeleye.

“I’ve been watching a lot of clips and I’ve seen a lot of plays where guys try to take a charge but they fall down before [contact],” Antetkounmpo said. “That’s really dangerous because I could sprain my ankle. Especially when I’m about to spin, they can trip me. That’s what happened. I tried to spin and he was on the floor, and I tripped. But you can’t control what you can’t control. You’ve got to live with it.”

Budenholzer was more protective of his guy. “I think it’s a huge concern,” the coach said. “If and when players are falling before contact, there’s speed and knees and legs that are basically putting Giannis in a dangerous place. I think it’s a tough game to call. Giannis is always in attack mode. But if there’s no contact and guys are falling and/or underneath him, that’s dangerous.”

If and when players are falling before contact, there’s speed and knees and legs that are basically putting Giannis in a dangerous place

Coach Mike Budenholzer

Lopez said that falling down is a refuge of, if not scoundrels, at least the over-matched. “Some guys tend to guard Giannis, they just fall down. That’s like their only option defensively,” he said. “It puts him in a dangerous position the way he’s going. … If it’s not called the right way, you can injure someone.”

What can Antetokounmpo do to keep himself upright more often? He could play less aggressively. He could limit his attack inside, where the worst tangles and tumbles occur. He also could make opponents pay more directly by making more than 61 percent of his free throws. He missed 10 of 20 against Boston, a rate that will incentivize opponents to send him to the line by any means necessary.

Each time he goes down, there’s a change he might stay there. Which produces a corresponding chance that an East rival might leapfrog the Bucks in their Finals aspirations. Why wouldn’t Boston be eager to use physical defenders such as Smart, Ojeleye, Wannemaker and Kanter on him, playing aggressively right back at Antetokounmpo?

Asked about possible ill intent, Lopez said: “I don’t think it’s really come up. That can be some teams’ option. I think we’ve run into a lot of teams with good guys where it hasn’t been completely obvious, but guys are, you can see, definitely more physical with him.

“Some of the contact he has to fight through just to get through a cross-screen to a post-up would be an automatic call for some guys. For him, it’s different. I know Giannis isn’t ‘other people,’ but you’re taken aback for a second.”

Antetokounmpo all but shrugged.

“I cannot be thinking that, about plays if I’m going to get hurt,” he said. “I think I’m really good at avoiding situations where you can get hurt and avoiding guys on the floor. It’s amazing, if somebody is taking a charge, you’ve got to step in the right place or you might sprain your ankle. Hopefully [you don’t] step and hurt your knee or something.”

“I just try to be aggressive and be in the moment and my instincts take over.’

Who knows? In the end, if the Bucks play into June, they might credit the camaraderie and bonding that developed from all those times George Hill, Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton and the rest stuck out their hands and helped their leader up off the floor.

As long as they don’t have to use a spatula one of these nights.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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