MILWAUKEE — Each game the Milwaukee Bucks play this season has a pronounced duality to it, as far as what the team and organization seek to achieve.
There’s the macro purpose of winning games, entertaining fans and making the playoffs. Then there’s the micro purpose that actually might wind up being more instrumental to the Bucks’ long-term fortunes and ambitions.
That is, the ongoing development of Giannis Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee’s cornerstone player and the NBA’s Unicorn Flavor of the Month.
Antetokounmpo is the real deal and has been for a while. When the franchise’s sparkling new facility opens next fall — two blocks and a world away from the old Milwaukee Arena they dusted off for their throwback Thursday game against the Celtics — it rightly will begin its useful life as the House That Giannis Built.
Antetokounmpo’s remarkable start to the 2017-18 schedule has people chronicling his achievements and taking his pulse after every game. Yes, he leads the Bucks in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, player efficiency rating (an astounding 37.3) and usage rate (34.8 percent). And yes, no Milwaukee player ever has scored more through the first five games of a season; Antetokounmpo’s 175 points moved him past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who opened 1970-71 with 171 through five performances (before adding 81 more in the next two games).
It’s a tough way to go through a season, though, with folks monitoring his every move and running the math every time Antetokounmpo posts his crooked numbers. At some point he will fall off his record-setting pace for this, that or the other thing. The Bucks will have doubled or tripled the sample size — five games represents a mere 6.1 percent of their schedule — and everyone can get busy with the short check list that really will define his and his team’s success.
1. Did Milwaukee win?
2. Did Antetokounmpo finish the game healthy?
3. How did this opponent defend against and/or attack him?
Antetokounmpo knows that his status as an All-Star, Kia MVP candidate or future Mt. Rushmore figure depends first and foremost on No. 1. He’ll only max out his individual potential if he can make sure the Bucks max out theirs.
No. 2 is essential, too, particularly for a team that has dealt with multiple injuries in recent seasons, most notably Khris Middleton’s torn hamstring a year ago and Jabari Parker’s serial ACL blowouts.
Hardly anyone gets out of The Association unscathed, but let’s hope for our own curious and selfish sake that the “Greek Freak” stays closer to LeBron James-and Kevin Garnett-healthy for most of his career.As for No. 3, that’s straight basketball business and it was on display against Boston Thursday. The Celtics already had suffered at Antetokounmpo’s hand in their home opener last week when he notched 37 points and 13 rebounds in Milwaukee’s 108-100 victory. But then, that was the tail end of a back-to-back after they started in Cleveland 24 hours earlier — and Boston still was rattled from the sudden loss of free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward’s services for the season.
You can see from the start that everybody loads and they close gaps so I don’t have a lot of room to go. I know moving forward that’s going to happen.”
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
This time, the Celtics had time and focus to prep, and coach Brad Stevens changed up one specific matchup: Instead of having forward Jaylen Brown guard Antetokounmpo, he gave that chore to big man Al Horford. With the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Horford crowding Antetokounmpo and with various Boston helpers bumping or running at him, the Bucks’ young star had a far more disjointed experience on his way to 28 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Horford met Antetokounmpo on the stats sheet, too, with 27 points, nine boards and four assists — and stayed close while teammates filled the lane to take away Antetokounmpo’s space.
“Teams know he wants to get to the paint, teams know that’s where he’s most effective,” Milwaukee point guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “Whether it’s finishing or finding guys, he touches the paint first. So they’re bringing five guys in and forcing him to pass it or forcing him to take contested shots.”
Compared to the Bucks’ first game against Boston, when they got to the foul line 30 times, they earned only 14 this time.
As specific to Thursday’s game as this might seem a day later, it really serves as an example of what Antetokounmpo and his guys will face over the next 77 games. In this era of three (or more) All-Star caliber teammates on the top contenders, the “Greek Freak” is the proverbial head-of-the-snake type for Milwaukee. He has had only limited help through the season’s first two weeks.
Middleton, the Bucks’ best shooter and second-most talented player, is an inexplicable 3-for-19 on 3-pointers. Besides him (15.2 ppg), Brogdon (15.8) and Tony Snell (11.0), no one else is averaging more than 6.8 points, five rebounds or 3.2 field goal attempts.
“You could tell night to night the other defenders pay more attention to me,” Antetokoumpo said. “You can see from the start that everybody loads and they close gaps so I don’t have a lot of room to go. I know moving forward that’s going to happen. I just got to stay disciplined and trust our offense, try to move the ball and I know the ball is going to find me back.”
Antetokounmpo and Brogdon agreed that the other Bucks can help him most by hitting shots when the point forward’s passes find them. There’s no better way to drag defenders off him.
The other imperative for Milwaukee is to lighten Antetokounmpo’s load overall. It’s not just his overall court time — a league high 39.2 minutes nightly — but the grind in each of those minutes. Gutting out five games is one thing; pushing through the next 77 or so at his current level is asking for burnout.
“We have to make sure he doesn’t have to work that hard to get his shots,” Brogdon said Thursday night. “He doesn’t need to drive inside every time. We need to drive inside for him sometimes to get him easy shots.
“He’s worked hard. That’s sort of his style of play. But as the season goes on, there are going to be games where he’s a little bit tired. Those are the games where we’ll need to work hard to get him the easy shots.”
No one has seen Antetokounmpo tucker out yet. Before exiting the cramped, home-locker-room-for-a-night at the MECCA, he chugged some sort of healthy energy drink, wrinkled up his face at the taste, then looked fresh heading into the Milwaukee chill.
Then again, there’s only one Energizer bunny in the NBA and he still plays in Oklahoma City.
“I think Giannis is next in line in terms of guys who have that type of motor,” Brogdon said, “but it’s tough to play that way every night.”
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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