CLEVELAND – Kyle Korver used to induce Giannis Antetokounmpo to not play like this.

Korver solely performed one season for the Milwaukee Bucks (it was the Bubble yr), however in that point he gently urged the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player to be a little bit extra methodical along with his bullishness.

Giannis is abnormally quick and coordinated for the way large he’s, in case you didn’t know, and for the primary six years of his profession (which included three All-Star video games and the 2019 MVP) he had an inclination to place his head down and barrel, at full pace, towards the rim. He used blunt power to attain and create offense and he was actually, actually good at it.

But Korver’s knowledge for Giannis was for him to not be so hasty in forcing that motion. Keep his head up on the dribble, possibly even hesitate earlier than he made a transfer, and in any other case not pound immediately into one or two or three defenders in the event that they’re standing in entrance of him. A second MVP marketing campaign that yr with Korver adopted, after which, the season after that Giannis led the Bucks to an NBA title.

Right now Antetokounmpo is again to his pre-Korver days, and for their very own private security opposing defenders ought to be careful. To say he bullied his solution to 45 factors and 14 rebounds in opposition to the Cavaliers can be promoting him brief.

It was a frontal assault, on Jarrett Allen (an All-Star defender) or whoever occurred to be standing in his method. Twenty-six of his 27 shot makes an attempt have been contained in the 3-point line, most of them close to the rim, and he additionally took 16 free throws. Bow his neck, sq. his shoulders, and off he went. Rinse, repeat.

But the Bucks misplaced to a extremely good Cleveland crew anyway (114-106, for these protecting rating), and for as personally dominant as Antetokounmpo was, and is, he is aware of and the Bucks know enjoying that method won’t get them to the place they wish to go in June.

There are too many good defensive groups within the East – the Cavs, because the No. 1-rated protection within the NBA, are one – that may face up to these Giannis bull runs in a seven-game collection by limiting the Bucks’ offense to only these.

It’s what occurred within the second spherical of the playoffs final yr in opposition to Boston, and it occurred once more final evening in Cleveland.

What was the widespread thread between then and now? Khris Middleton was and is out with a knee harm.

“Even when Khris is out there, that’s what I do, I try to get as many easy ones as I can,” Giannis stated. “That’s part of my game, I try to score a lot in the paint, but obviously when Khris is playing the game is a lot easier for everybody. We know he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot, he’s going to make a lot of decisions, he’s going to make shots.

“He’s one of the guys that down the stretch when we need a shot, he’s going to get the ball most likely,” Giannis continued. “But even if he is not out there, my game doesn’t really change.”

Middleton, who saved the Bucks within the 2021 convention finals whereas Giannis was out with a leg harm, and who’s a three-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist in his personal proper, performed in simply two playoff video games final spring due to a sprained MCL in his left knee.

In that second spherical collection loss to the Celtics that went seven video games, Antetokounmpo averaged 33.9 factors however shot simply 45 p.c from the sphere. The 197 photographs he took within the collection have been by far a profession excessive.

Middleton missed the beginning of this season with wrist surgical procedure, and on Wednesday missed his third consecutive sport with proper knee soreness. He’s performed in simply seven video games this season and is off to a gradual begin – with averages of 11.1 factors on 32.5-percent capturing (and 26.8 p.c from 3-point vary).

With all of that, the Bucks nonetheless personal the highest report within the NBA at 22-9, and Giannis is making his regular MVP case (31.6 factors per sport, 11.2 boards). They’ve glided via on Antetokounmpo’s regular brilliance, a resurgence from Brook Lopez, and typical Milwaukee depth. Jrue Holiday confirmed off his beautiful versatility simply two nights prior, in New Orleans, when as a degree guard he spent the complete sport guarding behemoth Zion Williamson. There isn’t a degree guard exterior of presumably Marcus Smart who might pull that off.

But the Bucks, apart from Giannis, have been brutal offensively in opposition to the Cavs. He had 17 of their 28 factors after one quarter and half their factors at halftime. Lopez was environment friendly with 14 factors on 5-of-7 capturing, and MarJon Beauchamp, who’s beginning for Middleton, scored 11. That was it so far as Bucks in double figures who don’t have two MVPs subsequent to their identify. Holiday, maybe worn out from the Zion project, shot 3-of-12.

“In an ideal world (Middleton) would be playing, but because we’ve had so many reps with Khris and so many reps and continuity and togetherness with a lot of this group, it’s probably less concerning to us than to other teams or other players or other situations,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer stated. “There’s still a point where we want to have him, but we want him to be healthy and complete. And there’s still a lot of games left.”

It’s not precisely a novel idea – {that a} crew is perhaps stronger with its second-best participant on the courtroom as an alternative of damage – however watching the urgency with which Antetokounmpo attacked the rim in opposition to the Cavs was a reminder of the traps the Bucks could be goaded into if Middleton isn’t on the market and Giannis’ head is down.

A youthful crew with out the expertise the Bucks’ core has collectively, as coach Bud talked about, would certainly be lamenting the missed probabilities to construct continuity. If Middleton didn’t play once more till March – he might actually be able to play in that Christmas rematch in Boston – the Bucks have been collectively lengthy sufficient that they may plug him in there and roar.

What could also be lamentable is the vitality Giannis needed to exert, on a December evening in Cleveland, simply to make the sport respectable. The Bucks trailed by as many as 24 and minimize their deficit to 5 with 2:21 left. Giannis was 8-of-12 capturing for 16 factors within the fourth quarter.

During it, he had a enjoyable alternate with Cleveland’s Allen, who pulled off a uncommon dunk on Giannis’ head, just for Antetokounmpo to return the favor on him.

“He had a good play on me, but I was able to get him back,” Antetokounmpo stated. “We were going back on defense and I told him ‘I got you back.’ He laughed and said ‘yeah I got you too.’ I said ‘yeah and I got you too.’ We kept going back and forth like that. I love that – he’s not backing down, and I’m not backing down.”

Giannis breaking dishes and knocking over tables is pure theater. He gained an MVP enjoying that method. But the Bucks are restricted when he looks like he has to do it.

(Top Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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