For a league that’s supposedly slogging through the dog days of a January polar vortex, the NBA never ceases to exhibit a remarkable gift for generating storylines.
You’ve heard the buzz. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard bought a swanky luxury estate near Los Angeles, which is where Pelicans star Anthony Davis would prefer to be traded, which is where Celtics guard Kyrie Irving would be open to reuniting with an all-world puppet master named LeBron James. And if those plot twists haven’t been enough to fuel the conversation, there’s always the annual all-star-snub debate. The lead-up to Thursday night’s Raptors-Bucks game, to be broadcast on U.S. national TV, will include the announcement of this year’s all-star reserves as voted by NBA coaches. With Leonard already ensconced as a starter, Toronto’s hopes come down to Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.
With all that swirling, you’ll be excused if this small but significant tidbit passed you by. Specifically: Giannis Antetokounmpo still can’t shoot.
It’s not as juicy as the aforementioned bits of news-cycle gold. But seeing as Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are in Toronto on Thursday for their fourth and final regular-season meeting with the Raptors — and seeing as the game is a matchup between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference — it’s worth a mention. After all, in a league currently ruled by perimeter-based players who largely worship at the altar of the almighty three-point shot, Antetokounmpo is an interesting anomaly.
He’s a true superstar and an MVP candidate. Next month he’ll serve opposite James as an all-star captain, picking his team in a made-for-TV bit of playground theatrics cribbed from the NHL. The Greek Freak is a fixture on the league’s marquee. He’s also becoming a story out of Greek mythology, cursed with a jump shot — and a three-point shot in particular — that’s a throbbing Achilles heel. And it’s worth asking: How much does it make you question Milwaukee’s viability as an Eastern contender?
So far it doesn’t appear to be hurting a team that arrives in the GTA with an NBA-best 36-13 win-loss record that translates to a 60-win pace. Still, it ought not be overlooked that Antetokounmpo came into this year vowing to let it fly from deep, given an eternal green light by newly arrived coach Mike Budenholzer. The thinking has always been that once Antetokounmpo establishes his credibility from beyond the arc — or, at the very least, from beyond the free-throw line — he’ll be beyond guardable.
“This year, I’m shooting,” Antetokounmpo was quoted as saying before the season. “I’ve worked so much this summer on it and day by day I get more comfortable. I’m going to shoot more shots and hopefully I make more. If I don’t, there’s another year coming and hopefully next year I can be better and better and better and better and better. Eventually, it’s going to come.”
Maybe, eventually, it will. It hasn’t so far. It’s true that he’s shooting more — averaging a career-high 2.4 three-point attempts a game. But as for his hopefulness about making more — well, no. Antetokounmpo is shooting an abysmal 20 per cent from three-point range. No player in the league who’s taken at least 100 attempts from beyond the arc has done worse. He’s also shooting 71 per cent from the free-throw line, below the league average of about 76 per cent.
Maybe the first-place Bucks can shrug it off. Antetokounmpo, who leads the East in dunks, is still a prolific scorer, averaging 26.5 points a game, ninth-best in the league. Milwaukee’s rim-attacking offence, which leads the East in points scored in the restricted area, is the most efficient in the conference and fourth-most efficient in the league. Add that to an NBA-best defence and you’ve got a team with basketball’s best net rating.
It’s also a team that’s defeated the Raptors in two of three previous meetings.
“(Thursday’s game) comes at a good time for us. We need to see where we are against these guys again,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters on Wednesday.
Toronto, mind you, put together one of its best performances of the season in a win at Milwaukee on Jan. 5, finding a way to outdo the Bucks despite a 43-point performance from Antetokounmpo (and overcoming his 3-for-5 shooting from three-point range, one of just four occasions this season in which the Milwaukee centrepiece made more than one trey in a game). Just as that Toronto win came in the wake of a disappointing loss in San Antonio that left the Raptors, as Nurse put it, “highly motivated,” Thursday’s matchup comes on the heels of an underwhelming three-game road trip that saw the Raptors lose in Indiana and Houston before a narrow win in Dallas.
“We are highly motivated again. It should be a good test, a good barometer,” Nurse said. “They’re very good … very well coached, obviously. They present a lot of problems.”
Before the season began, the chatter out of Milwaukee was that one of those problems would be a version of Antetokounmpo that posed a scarier threat from the perimeter. He’s shooting 41 per cent on shots ranging from 16 feet to inside the three-point line, which is a career high. But Antetokounmpo is making the bulk of his hay from in tight, shooting a career-high 63 per cent from two-point range.
Maybe, with his seven-foot-three wingspan and superior athleticism, he’s overpowering enough to carry Bucks on a long playoff run. Still, Milwaukee has yet to win a playoff series in Antetokounmpo’s three previous trips to the post-season. And even if this is by far the best team he’s played on, post-season basketball is a different test. Weaknesses get exposed. Sore points get jabbed. And history suggests a ball-dominating star with no confidence in his jumper is repeatedly begged by sagging defences to shoot and shoot and shoot.
In a league filled with swish-making savants, the bricklayers stand out. Among the NBA’s top 20 scorers, Antetokounmpo is the only one who isn’t averaging at least one three-point basket a game (he’s averaging 0.5). Raptor fans know what that can end up looking like. DeMar DeRozan can’t be compared to Antetokounmpo; they’re vastly different players. But DeRozan’s limited shooting range was exploited by opponents to Toronto’s detriment in too many playoff losses to count. It’s on the list of reasons why Leonard, a career 38-per-cent shooter from three-point range, is now a Raptor.
So can a team be considered a true NBA power when its top player is possessed of such a glaring blindspot? Can the Bucks go far with a star who only thrives in close? Thursday night won’t provide the answer. But the question will probably only go away when more jumpers start going in.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk