Game-winner a result of Giannis Antetokounmpo's work in the post

Bucks phenom has spent more than a year fine-tuning his offense near the basket

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

It was the first time he won a game at the buzzer. It was not the first time he made that move. And it certainly won’t be the last.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a 17-foot, step-back jumper at Madison Square Garden to beat the New York Knicks, 105-104, on Wednesday. It was the latest highlight in the development of the NBA’s next superstar, a 22-year-old with a freakish combination of length and athleticism. But while many of Antetokounmpo’s other highlights (like his dunk from just inside the elbow earlier in the fourth quarter) are more about his natural gifts, the game-winner was more about his willingness to work.

“I work on that shot a lot,” Antetokounmpo said afterward.

It’s not just the shot. It’s playing in the post, the latest stage of Antetokounmpo’s evolution. For a young player with perimeter skills — Antetokounmpo is a point forward like LeBron James — playing with your back to the basket is initially uncomfortable. But Antetokounmpo wants to be a star and he’s been willing to get uncomfortable in order to get better.

In the middle of last season, the Bucks started putting the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands more often. But it wasn’t just about making him a ball-handler on the perimeter. Kidd wanted to get Antetokounmpo on the block, where he could get a shot off no matter who was guarding him.

“Looking at some of the star players in this league, the post is where they make their hay,” Kidd said. “I played with Dirk [Nowitzki] in Dallas, you look at KG, you look at Rasheed [Wallace], guys who are that long, being able to turn around and shoot over guys. You can’t block their shot. You just hope they miss.”

For the last year and a half, Antetokounmpo has been working with assistant coach Sean Sweeney on his post game. Before Wednesday’s game in New York, that was the last thing they worked on during Antetokounmpo’s pre-game workout.

“It was difficult at first,” Antetokounmpo said of playing with his back to the basket. “But I spent a lot of time in the gym, working with the staff. It eliminates fear. It makes you feel more comfortable and then your instincts work.

“So now, making that shot, I didn’t think about it. I just knew I could create space, because I’ve worked all summer on it.”

Antetokounmpo in the post is now one of the Bucks’ go-to options late in games. They went to him in the post on the possession prior to the game-winner, but he missed a turnaround jumper from just inside the foul line.

On the final possession, the primary option, once Antetokounmpo had the ball in the post, was Jason Terry coming off a double-screen from Malcolm Brogdon and Greg Monroe. But Courtney Lee didn’t let Terry get free, so Monroe took Joakim Noah into the paint to vacate the spot where Antetokounmpo was going to shoot.

“I knew that I could shoot the ball over the top of anybody at any time,” Antetokounmpo said. “I knew he was not going to block my shot. So I just wanted to make sure I take the last shot. Moose was at the top. Thank God he dove and he gave me space to be able to get to my spot.

“I just let it fly. It was instincts.”

“Giannis did what great players do, what All-Stars do,” Monroe said. “He’s been working extremely hard on all facets of his game. His production on a nightly basis is just what’s coming out of his hard work. His post game is definitely coming along really well and he’s only going to continue to get better.”

With his long strides, Antetokounmpo has always been a terror in the open court. Get him going downhill and he’s impossible to stop. But if you got got back in transition, you could take away his runway and have success defending the Bucks in the half-court, because he’s not a very good shooter from the perimeter. Even in his fourth season, Antetokounmpo ranks 171st in field goal percentage from outside the paint among 194 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the outside.

But this year, despite losing Khris Middleton before training camp even started, the Bucks have been one of the league’s most improved offensive teams, scoring 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season, jumping from 24th to eighth in offensive efficiency.

Antetokounmpo’s development has been a big part of that. Taking away his transition opportunities is a little less effective than it was in the past. According to SportVU, he has shot 56 percent (44-for-78) in the last seven seconds of the shot clock, up from 39 percent last season.

As more teams space the floor around pick-and-rolls, the post-game has been de-emphasized around the league. League-wide field goal percentage on post-ups is just 45 percent, according Synergy Sports. This season, only three teams have posted up on at least 10 percent of their possessions. Almost half the league (13 teams) did so in the 2010-11 season, just six years ago.

But there’s still value in a post-up if you have a playmaker who’s comfortable there. It turns the defense around and opens passing lanes. And if you have a small forward who’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and you absolutely need to get a shot off in a late-game situation, it could be your best option.

According to Synergy, Antetokounmpo has posted up 1.9 times a game, resulting in 0.95 points per possession for the Bucks. Those numbers are up from 1.4 and 0.80 last season.

Antetokounmpo in the post now must be on the scouting report, though there may not be much Bucks opponents can do about it.

“I don’t think Lance [Thomas] could’ve played better defense than he did,” Carmelo Anthony said about Wednesday’s game-winner.

Antetokounmpo said that he hasn’t watched much film of other players in the post. He’s learned from repetition. To create the space he needed on Wednesday, he leaned into Thomas and planted with his right leg before stepping back with his left with one of those long strides. When he released the ball, Thomas was in no better position to defend the shot than if he were sitting on his couch at home.

“You can see Giannis’ confidence with playing with his back to the basket,” Kidd said. “He doesn’t rush. He takes his time and he works on that move. He’s been working on that move for the last year and a half or a little bit longer.”

All those hours in the gym paid off in one moment at Madison Square Garden, the latest step in the evolution of a star. A lot of players have talent and a lot of players work hard. The best to ever play the game have enhanced their superior gifts with an untiring worth ethic.

Antetokounmpo has that combination. He’s already made big strides, both literally and figuratively, and he has many more to make. His first game-winner at MSG will be followed by many more special moments, because he has prepared for them.

“At one point,” Antetokounmpo said, “when you work so hard, you just get comfortable.”

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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