I was no different. It was, and is, pretty obvious stuff. Lillard is the best pull-up range shooter in history not named Stephen Curry, which means two defenders are going to jump at him, which in turns leaves Giannis, a comic-book athlete, in a sea of space to storm toward the basket.
Where I was perhaps wrong was in the expectation that people understood the devastation of this duo would lie largely in the trickle-down effect of their combined gravity, and the poison-picking predicament in which it would leave opposing defenses.
Did people honestly think it was going to be as simple as Giannis rolling uninhibited to the rim for dunks? Did Giannis think that?
In a recent piece by Eric Nehm of The Athletic (which is very much worth your time to read), it sort of sounds like he did.
"The first couple of games, I couldn't understand it," Antetokounmpo told The Athletic on Nov. 20, referring to the clogged lane he found himself continually facing once Lillard had passed out of the double team. "Why the f--- is it so crowded?"
"This is the craziest part," Antetokounmpo said. "Because going into the season, you're saying like, 'Oh shit, the pick-and-roll, I'm going to get so many easy looks.' But right now, our pick-and-roll connection is, people are benefitting more than us because Dame is being double-teamed, and when I get the ball, they're zoning up. And so, it's like swing, swing, and other people will benefit."
"It's too crowded. I traveled maybe two, three times at the start of this year," Antetokounmpo said, as he started to show where he sees defenders when he catches the ball in the pick-and-roll with Lillard. "I get it, and I turn and the guy's here already. Or when I get it, I turn, and I'm about to go and hit a crowd. It's crowded."
This is pretty baffling. Giannis has been staring at walls of defenders in the paint for the last half decade, and all the sudden he was, or is, surprised that they're not rolling out a red carpet to the rim just because Lillard initiated the action?
This is standard pick-and-roll procedure. Even Draymond Green, who isn't a fraction of the threat that Giannis is as a downhill rim attacker, sees multiple defenders in the paint on short rolls. It's just a math problem. The defense, after sending two to the ball handler, is down a man. So it has to, as Giannis is calling it, "zone up" in an effort to ward off four offensive players with just three remaining defenders.
You don't have to be a basketball genius to figure out that those three defenders are going to devote, basically, the entirety of their collective attention on stopping Giannis before he gets going downhill. If Giannis didn't think this was going to happen, again, that's baffling.
Lillard gets this. He's been getting doubled on ball screens for the better part of the last decade. As he explains, quite thoroughly in fact, in Nehm's piece, he knows it's a literally a game of inches.
The guys spacing beyond the 3-point line are the ones who are going to get the open looks when defenses sink down on Giannis, and if they can knock down those shots consistently, defenses will naturally start to gravitate just a little bit toward them, and thus, away from their primary responsibilities of Dame's pull-up 3-pointers and Antetokounmpo's rim rolls.
Both of them only need a sliver of open space to kill you.
But two things have to happen for Lillard and Giannis to get those slivers of space. The shooters have to make the shots, and Milwaukee indeed has plenty of capable shooters. But before that can happen, the pass has to be delivered to them. That's on Giannis, who is not comfortable making these split-second decisions. Hesitate for even a moment, and the defense recovers and whatever advantage you might've had has disappeared.
In the past, Giannis has had more time to stare down the walls in front of him. He's stand at the top of the key and survey before he took off like a bull out of a chute. It didn't make for great offense, but it gave an unnatural playmaker who is prewired as a wrecking ball time to consider his options. To get the lay of the land. Locate his outlet shooters before he was into his drive.
Now he has to catch and go, and the processing time is different. That part is understandable. Dicing up defenses via short-roll passing isn't as easy as Draymond makes it look. What's not so understandable, again, is that it doesn't seem like Giannis saw this coming.
Either way, this is the deal, and the only way Giannis is going to get more comfortable operating as a roller in tight quarters is to do more of it. And that's where Lillard, it sounds like, is sort of sending a message to Bucks coach Adrian Griffin about upping the frequency of these actions, which Griffin has, to this point in the season, been hesitant to do for fear of compromising the more inclusive, motion offense he prefers.
"... I think it just takes reps," Lillard told The Athletic with regard to his pick-and-rolls with Giannis. "I think we need to be in more pick-and-roll situations together. I think that's how you get better. That's how you learn each other better. I think we just aren't in a lot of pick-and-rolls where I'm handling and he's setting. And we haven't locked in on it enough … I think right now we don't get enough reps at it in the game against the coverages because we don't run it all the time, like you would assume. So, it's just taking some time for us to get it down."
This is the bottom line. Great players attracting multiple defenders as a means for opening up their lesser capable teammates is a simple basketball principle to conceptualize, but it can be a lot harder to execute on the fly. The answer to that is equally simple: The more you do it, the better you'll get at it.
Dame doesn't need reps. His part of the equation hasn't changed. Giannis is the one in new territory. There's reason to believe he's starting to get it. Nehm quotes Giannis talking about setting the screens higher up on the floor, so that when Giannis receives the pass he has a bit more floor space to make a decision before he gets into the teeth of the defense.
Little wrinkles like that can help him out, and it's encouraging that Giannis is seeing all this now. Still, it's crazy to me he didn't see it coming all along. He's not a good shooter. Whether it's as a roller, in isolation, whatever the layout, defenders are going to sink into the paint when Giannis has the ball on the perimeter. Not exactly a new concept.
Again, he just doesn't have the time he used to have to make the decision and the pass, and for that, well, he needs more time. Should Griffin give it to him, even if it's occasionally clunky in the short term, in hopes of dialing in what should be, perhaps, Milwaukee's go-to offensive action come playoff time? Most, Lillard included, would say yes. We'll see if it happens over the next few months.