Here's a statistic for you: In his last four games, Giannis Antetokounmpo has shot 14 of 15 on non-restricted-area shots in the paint, per NBA.com. That's a fancy way of saying he's been scoring even when he can't quite get to the rim for a dunk or a layup.
… and hit a little turnaround and a lefty hook over Chandler Hutchison …
… and created space to loft a few short jumpers over Jarrett Allen …
… and used his height advantage against Marcus Smart.
These shots are notable because they're examples of Antetokounmpo trying to expand his game. In the history of the NBA, there may never have been a player as good as Antetokounmpo with as much room to grow. He turned 25 years old last month, is poised to win his second straight MVP and yet it is obvious to even casual fans that he could use a better jumper and a more varied arsenal.
There are some misconceptions, though, about his shortcomings, particularly regarding what happened to him and the Milwaukee Bucks in last year's Eastern Conference finals. I'll focus on two of them:
- It's all about the 3-point shot. A consistent 3-point shot would help Antetokounmpo, but he will have to be much more accurate than he is now for opponents to start worrying about him out there. The bigger issues last May were his relative lack of moves once he put the ball on the floor, his discomfort playing in a crowd and his poor free-throw shooting.
- Kawhi Leonard changed everything by himself. Leonard made a difference, but containing Antetokounmpo was far from a one-man job. The Raptors switched liberally, swarmed Antetokounmpo in the paint and did everything in their power to prevent the Bucks from finding their rhythm.
There are plenty of examples of Antetokounmpo, defended by someone other than Leonard, missing the kind of shots Toronto wanted him to take …
… and turning the ball over.
After his season ended, Antetokounmpo told Eric Nehm of The Athletic that Leonard's patient approach and midrange mastery were instructive, pledging to come back this season a more skilled player, more of a creative wing than a big man trying to power through everybody. He even thanked Leonard and Marc Gasol for motivating him to be better. You should read the whole thing if you somehow missed it, but here are a couple of quotes:
"I learned a lot of things watching Kawhi while the game was going on," Antetokounmpo said. "Like his patience. From the way he operates. He operates in the mid-range area. You saw that? He took the ball a step inside the three and faced up. And now he's got everybody. He sees everybody coming, right? So, why was he doing that? You know why? Because he felt really comfortable in his mid-range game."
"Now, every day in my head, I'm seeing Gasol double-team me," Antetokounmpo said. "You think I'm joking, but I'm not. I'm not seeing anybody else. I don't care who's guarding me. Give me a name. Thaddeus Young. All I'm seeing is Kawhi, Gasol coming because I know that. When I get to that situation, it might not be them. It might be (Joel) Embiid. Ben Simmons guarding me, Embiid double- teaming, but that's what I'm seeing now. That's what I feel like I have to do better."
On the season, Antetokounmpo is only shooting 41 percent on short midrange shots and 37 percent on long midrange shots, per Cleaning The Glass. The biggest change in his shot profile has been a dramatic increase in 3-point attempts, the vast majority of which have been wide open pull-ups. He is a long way from the Leonards, Kevin Durants and Khris Middletons of the world. (Middleton is shooting 52 percent from midrange, per CTG.)
No one in the league, however, can match Antetokounmpo's length and power, which is how he's averaging even more points than James Harden on a per-minute basis. Antetokounmpo can get to the rim with such ease that he doesn't need a killer off-the-dribble jumper. It just needs to be an option.
From a long-term perspective, the best version of Antetokounmpo is one who has supreme confidence in his in-between game. In a more immediate sense, simply having some counters against elite defenses will make him and his team less predictable in the playoffs, when the margin for error is much smaller. His bread and butter should not change, but there are good reasons to keep trying to diversify.
'We have the DNA'
Full disclosure: I was planning to lead this week's column with something Lakers-related, but it doesn't feel like the right time for analysis of what that particular team is doing on the court.
I would still, however, like to share a big-picture note on the Lakers: As well as they've played, as cohesive as they've looked, they are trying to do something incredibly difficult. Winning a championship is hard enough for teams that have been together for years, but they have a new coach, a new superstar, new rotation players and real pressure to do it in Year 1. This almost never happens.
But it did happen last season, and Danny Green was on the team. I asked him what he can take from his year in Toronto and apply to his current situation.
"That it's possible to make something special happen in one year," Green told me. "You know, we have the pieces, we have the talent, we have the DNA. We just gotta make it work. We have to figure it out. And that's a tough thing for everybody in this locker room and everybody on the coaching staff. But I think we have the right tools to get it done. We just have to believe in it, believe in the system and believe in each other. Hopefully we put everybody's pride and ego aside and know what the bigger picture is."
A few thoughts:
- I can't wait for the eventual documentary on the 2018-19 Raptors, in which I wouldn't be surprised if Green says he looks back and wonders if he dreamed the entire thing. What a wonderfully weird experience for that group.
- Green was famously waived in 2010 by the San Antonio Spurs, who signed him again after a stint with the Reno Bighorns of the D-League (now the Stockton Kings of the G League). After eight seasons in San Antonio, where he almost always had a legitimate chance of competing for a title, it seemed like he could remain a Spur forever. Now he's hopping from contender to contender, and he will be a free agent again at the end of next season. His career arc can't be summarized neatly, but think of how many players would wish for a similar one.
- When Green used the term "bigger picture," my mind immediately went to one thing Los Angeles can learn from Toronto: The importance of regular-season experimentation. I want to see the Lakers lean into their crazy lineup possibilities and play a bit more zone.
Cauley me maybe
Willie Cauley-Stein sounds thrilled to be in Dallas. "It's a perfect spot," he told reporters on Wednesday before his Mavericks debut, per Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News. The 26-year-old center has never played a playoff game, having spent the first four years of his career in Sacramento and the first half of this season with the Warriors.
In theory, you couldn't design a better situation for Cauley-Stein. All he has to do to fit into the Mavericks' offense is set screens, roll hard to the rim and finish alley-oops from the best lob passer in the league.
"I think [my game] has the strengths of what they do with the floor spread and the spread pick-and-rolls with me and Luka [Doncic] or me and any of these dudes," he told reporters. "The way our spacing is, it's deadly."
Dallas isn't a particularly fast team, but Cauley-Stein's speed in transition could be a source of easy points. He has the lateral quickness to stick with smaller players, too, and was drafted No. 6 in 2015 on the strength of his defensive upside. Mavs owner Mark Cuban called the acquisition a "steal and a half," via the Dallas Morning News' Brad Townsend.
As someone who wrote a deep-dive profile of Cauley-Stein before his rookie season, I've always had a soft spot for him. I am aware that Kings fans grew frustrated with his inconsistency, but perhaps playing with Doncic on a winning team is exactly what he needs. (Ugh, sorry, Sacramento.)
I wonder, though, if Cauley-Stein will be satisfied with his role. Back when I profiled him, he told me he missed his days of being a point guard in junior high and wanted to develop guard-like moves and footwork now that he had more time to devote to skill work. It was clear that he saw himself as much more than a Tyson Chandler-esque rim runner. If Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has made Kristaps Porzingis take a less-is-more approach to offense, do you think he will have patience for Cauley-Stein's midrange jumpers and floaters?
Much of this is because, as we saw at the very beginning of the season, Booker is finally in a functional offensive environment. He doesn't have to force things the way he used to.
He deserves credit, though, for improving what was already one of the most refined offensive skill packages in the league. Booker is shooting 71 percent at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, a better mark than LeBron James (67 percent), James Harden (63 percent) and Kyrie Irving (60 percent). It is also by far a career high.
Booker is a threat to score one-on-one from everywhere, and he's an opportunistic cutter, which is a much more valuable trait now that he isn't always the Phoenix Suns' primary playmaker. As well as having soft touch around the basket, he is becoming crafty at creating contact and getting to the line. In his last 15 games, Booker has averaged 9.8 free throw attempts and made 93.9 percent of them.
His overall averages in the last 15, by the way: 31.7 points, 6.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 66 percent true shooting. If he isn't named an All-Star reserve on Thursday night, he will have a legitimate gripe.
Dillon Brooks cherry-picked while the Knicks jogged back.
Brandon Clarke just kind of snuck by everybody.
In fairness to the Knicks, they've played much harder on defense in the past couple of weeks. This was the second night of a back-to-back, Memphis loves to run and Morant is a magician. But the Grizzlies had played the night before, too, and these kinds of mistakes make everybody's shoulders slump.