The Milwaukee Bucks lost, 125-123, but their offense was spectacular. It seemed like a potential turning point in their deployment of Antetokounmpo. After dribbling into walls of defenders in back-to-back postseason defeats -- to the Toronto Raptors in 2019, and then in the bubble last season to the Miami Heat -- was Antetokounmpo finally ready to be a little more Anthony Davis, and a little less LeBron James?
That was part of the point in trading a treasure trove for Jrue Holiday, and nearly swinging a sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic (who landed with the Atlanta Hawks): surround Antetokounmpo with maximum shooting, sure, but also with as many ball handlers as possible capable of running pick-and-roll with him -- turning Antetokounmpo for stretches into the league's deadliest screen-and-dive threat. With two or even three dangerous ball handlers around Antetokounmpo, the Bucks would be able to drag a weak perimeter defender into a star-laden pick-and-roll against almost every opposing lineup.
It didn't have to be a sea change for the two-time MVP. Perhaps just shifting 10% toward that role on offense would provide Milwaukee the schematic diversity to survive three or four playoff series.
Those 36 ball screens still mark a career single-game high for Antetokounmpo, but that small shift in role is happening. (Antetokounmpo's on-ball and off-ball picks are up this season, per Second Spectrum.) It is one of the main reasons the Bucks enter tonight's pivotal Game 3 in Miami up 2-0 over the foe who dispatched them last season.
The Bucks could have ducked this matchup by tanking their next-to-last regular-season game against Miami. They had internal discussions about potentially doing so, sources said. They unanimously opted against it. They wanted to enter the postseason in rhythm. They would not evince any fear of any opponent. Some within the team even evoked their seven-game first-round loss to the Boston Celtics in 2018 -- and how they avenged it the next season by upending Boston 4-1 in the second round, sources said.