But two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had little interest in talking about the offense.
Instead, he zeroed in on the Bucks’ defensive effort. After the loss to the Rockets, Antetokounmpo spent seven-and-a-half minutes passionately explaining why the team needed to get better defensively to reach their ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship.
“Offense is gonna be there some nights, and, some nights, it’s not going to be there,” Antetokounmpo explained. “Your defensive effort, though, has got to be there. And defensively, our effort was not there. There was no pride. Guys were just driving the ball, straight-line drive, getting to the paint, over-helping, shooting 3s, offensive rebounds. There was nothing. This was not the Milwaukee Bucks. This is not who we are.”
While Antetokounmpo broke down the Bucks’ defensive shortcomings and detailed why they need to be better on that side of the ball, his statement was not entirely accurate.
In the past, a poor defensive effort would not have lived up to the Bucks’ standard. But this season, it is much closer to their standard. Before Saturday’s game, the Bucks ranked 21st in defensive rating, allowing teams to score 115.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
In Saturday’s first half, the Rockets scored 63 points. The Bucks trailed by 20 points at halftime. When the team returned for the second half, Bucks coach Adrian Griffin went with rookie wing Andre Jackson Jr. in place of Malik Beasley to go with the rest of the Bucks’ typical starting lineup.
“The second half, we were better,” Antetokounmpo said. “Third quarter, we were better. Fourth quarter, we were better. We won both quarters. Yeah, we went out there and competed. We make it harder, pre-switch, fronted the post, put our hands in the ball, made it tough for them, got every rebound that we could. We made it tough. That’s who we are.
“In the first half, we didn’t do that. And it’s not good, man. ‘Cause right now we’re playing a type of basketball, especially defensively, that is not us. We have to be better. In order for us to win, we have to be better. We cannot just rely on our offense of scoring 130 points, 140 points every single night. It’s not going to work that way. It’s not going to work that way.”
While the Bucks have a 25-11 record, Antetokounmpo has not been pleased with the defensive effort this season, and he has gotten more vocal about the team’s defensive struggles over the last few weeks. Following the Bucks’ fourth loss to the Indiana Pacers this season on Wednesday, Antetokounmpo talked about how the Bucks needed to stop relying on their ability to outscore teams and instead focus more on the defensive end.
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The Bucks’ first-half defensive struggles brought Antetokounmpo’s concerns to the forefront again on Saturday and left him upset following the Bucks’ loss to the Rockets.
“Pride. Pride. Pride. Pride. We gotta take it personal,” Antetokounmpo said, when asked how the Bucks can get better defensively this season. “Like, we have to take it personal. Whoever wants to play hard, plays hard. Whoever doesn’t want to play hard, it’s gotta be a decision that’s gotta be made. Even myself, too. If I don’t play hard, sit me out, sit me on the bench. There’s times I’m tired and I don’t play as hard as I can, and there’s times even when I give everything I have. But we have to have a mentality of whenever we step on the floor, we have to get stops.
“That’s how we’re going to win. We’re not going to win by getting a rhythm offensively. Obviously, they were a tough team because they switch everything and you have to play one-on-one in order for you to break down their defense. But we cannot rely on that. We have to rely on getting stops. Guys have to play with more effort, including me. It starts with me always. Always… Including me. I have to be able, every time we step on the floor, to figure out the ways to get stops. Play harder. That’s it.”
When asked to explain something that the Bucks can do better defensively, Antetokounmpo did not hesitate.
“We cannot die on screens. We die on screens, including myself,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus. That’s why I keep saying including myself. Always. It starts from me. I’m the leader of the team. It always starts with me. I have to be better, but we cannot die on screens. What, because Bobby (Portis) and Brook (Lopez) are back there, what does that mean? That we are going to— we are just going to die on screens and let the guy go downhill and shoot a floater because Brook is going to save our butts? That’s how we’re going to win a championship? No, that’s not how we’re going to win a championship.”
While the Bucks managed to put together a strong second half and limit the Rockets to 49 points in the final two quarters, Milwaukee certainly struggled with navigating screens and keeping players from getting into the paint and all the way to the rim in the first half. The Rockets outscored the Bucks, 18-6, in the final five minutes of the first half, and there were plenty of examples of the Bucks not getting through screens in pick-and-roll situations.
And while VanVleet took advantage of Beasley at the start of the final five minutes, he also took advantage of Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks have struggled with transition defense throughout the first 36 games of the season, but that was not a problem on this possession. Antetokounmpo picked up VanVleet but then failed to stay close enough to him as he dribbled off of the screen by Şengün.
On the next defensive possession though, it was Beasley again getting caught on a screen and abandoning his man. Beasley got caught on the screen to such an extent that he chose to peel off of his man and just stick with the rolling big man, leaving Jalen Green all by himself in space on the right wing.
Griffin called a timeout after that jumper from Green in order to get his team to refocus their effort defensively, but it didn’t work.
Ninety seconds after the timeout, the Bucks gave up an offensive rebound and VanVleet immediately made them pay.
Damian Lillard chased VanVleet around the dribble handoff and forced the Rockets point guard off the 3-point line, but he didn’t stay connected enough to VanVleet to make it difficult on him as the possession progressed. Instead, VanVleet whipped around the dribble handoff, casually got into the paint and then dished it off to Şengün for a short floater from the right block.
On the next defensive possession, the Rockets used a guard-to-guard screen at the top of the key. With two guards in the action, the Bucks could just switch the action, which they attempted to do, but Lillard was not aggressive enough, so Green drove right past him to the rim.
For Antetokounmpo, though, the Bucks’ failings on defense are not only about the effort of the players on the floor though. If the Bucks are going to improve on defense, it will require better tactics from Griffin as well.
“Now, defensively, we have to have a plan,” Antetokounmpo said. “What is our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open 3s? Are we going to let them get in the paint? When they go in the post, are we going to stay with ours and play one-on-one? What is our strategy? Right now, we are giving everything. We are giving everything. We are giving the 3s. We are giving straight line drives. We are letting guys play in the post and get comfortable. We’re giving offensive rebounds.
“And when I say this, this includes me. Always, it starts from me. I’m part of all of that too. We have to be better. Even as a team, we have to figure out what works and create a strategy around things that work. Like sometimes, you cannot stop everything. Sometimes, we’re going to play a team that wants to shoot a lot of 3s. We have to send them to the paint. Sometimes, we’re going to play teams that want to get to the paint. Everybody, now we got to muck the game up, show help and after that, we play. Sometimes, we play teams that want to crash the offensive rebounds, they want to get a lot of rebounds, we have to come together as a team. We cannot rely on Brook or Bobby. As a team, we have to get back and get rebounds.”
While Antetokounmpo spent the entirety of his postgame session discussing the Bucks’ defensive shortcomings, he does not believe the Bucks are doomed to being a below-average defensive team. Instead, he feels that addressing the team’s problems on that end of the floor now will allow them to become a better defensive team and get themselves where they need to be before the playoffs begin.
“At the end of the day, this is not the end of the world,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s not the end of the world, for sure. It’s a start for us to go the direction that we want to go. This is not who we are. This is not who we are. And if we keep on this pace, I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to get to.
“We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust one another better. We have to be coached better. Every single thing, everybody has to be better. Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better. The bench has to be better. The leaders of the team have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have better strategy. We have to be better…
“We have four months to get better, so let’s see.”
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)