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Preview: Scrambling Thunder regroup for innovative Bucks

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Giannis is at point guard. Does this free up KD for a big game?

W. Bennett Berry

The Bucks are a young squad that's struggling to put it together in the middle of the season. At 26-36, the Bucks are six losses below the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Playoffs are still possible, but looking more unlikely as the days roll by. Since the All-Star break, the Bucks have gone a ho-hum 4-4. We know that the Bucks are capable of tangoing with big teams. Back on December 12th, the Bucks were the team to stop the Warriors streak. And just this year, Milwaukee boasts wins over the Hawks, Celtics, Hornets, and Heat.

Giannis at point guard? It's actually better than KD at point guard

Moving forward, it seems as if the Bucks want to remain competitive. Their latest experiment might sound a little bit familiar to Thunder fans. From Brett Abramczyk at Brew Hoop:

Since coach Jason Kidd changed the starting lineup and replaced its only point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, with a complementary player in O.J. Mayo, Giannis has had the opportunity to show just how well he can run the "point guard" position. While that’s a storyline that basically can’t get any more tantalizing for Bucks fans, it’s not as cut and dried as the headlines might imply.

Yes, Giannis is bringing the ball up the floor and running the break, and that’s freaking fantastic (see the passes below). But often that’s the extent of his point guard responsibilities, as most times the ball is quickly out of his hands as the team gets into a set. Furthermore, he isn’t necessarily running many more pick-and-rolls (though he is getting more and more of those reps), which might be the best definition of a point guard these days.

So yeah, that sounds a lot like what Kevin Durant is doing now. Over on the Thunder, KD is being asked to play backup point guard. Durant is more of an actual point guard though, keeping the ball in his hands for most offensive possessions. Antetokounmpo seems like more of a game manager. For the record, Giannis has been playing point guard since February 9th. The Bucks are 6-4 since that point. Individually, Antetokounmpo has averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists since switching to a point guard role.

But Giannis isn't the only one to benefit from this new 6'11" point guard experiment. Jabari Parker has been averaging 19 points per game since the change, 7 over his season's average. Khris Middleton has seen increases over the same period, averaging 23 points to his usual 19. These three players (Antetokoumpo, Parker, and Middleton) have basically become the only guys guaranteed to start each game and finish crunch time on the Bucks. The other two spots will change in crunch time based on who's performing well on any given night.

Nevertheless, it appears as if Giannis at point guard isn't Milwaukee's end game. Zach Lowe recently wrote an interesting piece about the Bucks' heavy interest in Rubio, the league's most skilled passing guard. Talks for Rubio ultimately died though, and Giannis appears to be succeeding. Even coach Jason Kidd, one of the best passers in NBA history, thinks that point Giannis has actually improved his team's passing:

And [Giannis has] made some incredible passes. The bounce pass to Jabari. The halfcourt pass [to Mayo], that was one of the best I've seen. And I think it just becomes contagious with everyone passing the ball. We've got the ball moving right now. Khris throwing it off the glass. Guys are moving the ball. It's fun to watch. They're all making the right play. It's a little bit different than the first half of the season where the ball was sticking and we weren't getting multiple touches.

How the Bucks match up

Giannis' new role will certainly be interesting to see directly compared against Westbrook tonight. Last time the Bucks and Thunder met, back on December 30th, Michael Carter-Williams was actually able to outperform Westbrook directly. Carter-Williams larger size allowed him to slow down Westbrook in the paint, especially when it came to post ups. Furthermore, Westbrook challenged Carter-Williams to shoot, and Carter-Williams made most of his open jumpers. Carter-Williams was even effective on the break, when Westbrook was occupied elsewhere. Ultimately though, Westbrook came out looking superior as he was able to score game-clinching points at the rim.

Regardless, Carter-Williams now comes off the bench, and likely won't be playing tonight. Antetokoumpo's size will certainly be difficult for Westbrook to deal with. Opposing teams generally like to play longer defenders on Westbrook to prevent him getting to the rim. But Giannis is someone I'd normally see as more of a KD-stopper.

That begs the question, who will be guarding KD? It was Giannis last time. Durant's performance against Giannis was normal for Durant. KD shot 6 of 18, got to the line 13 times, and had 8 assists to 4 turnovers. Antetokoumpo wasn't necessarily locking KD down, but he was preventing KD from getting to the rim. Tonight, KD will likely have to deal with Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton. It really depends on who the Bucks want to put on Ibaka. Regardless of whom the Bucks choose, one of the Thunder's primary offensive weapons (KD, Westbrook, or Ibaka) will be facing a mismatch from the get-go tonight. Perhaps Ibaka will be up against the smaller Middleton, perhaps KD will be up against the smaller Middleton, or perhaps Westbrook will face the underwhelming O.J. Mayo. That gives me confidence about the Thunder's chances.

On the defensive end, I'd be really worried about Khris Middleton. Last time, Middleton was able to use his speed to pop open for the easiest shots against Andre Roberson. This game will likely be played in transition a lot as well, and that should open up a lot of opportunities for Antetokoumpo.

Are the Thunder floundering? Can they recuperate?

It's been a rough few weeks for the Thunder. Since the All-Star break, OKC has gone just 2-6. Most recently, the Thunder just went 1-2 on a California road trip. It started off with a domination of the Kings. But things soon turned sour. That domination was followed by one of the worst second half choke jobs in NBA history, against the Clippers. Then, the Thunder lost to the Warriors again. That game also saw the Thunder fold late.

But there do appear to be signs of hope. Assistant Coach Mo Cheeks, absent since February 17th with hip surgery, was seen at Thunder practice yesterday. The Thunder have previously stated that Cheeks would return to practices and meetings before returning to full game action though, so we may have to wait a bit longer for Cheeks' return. Still no word on Assistant Coach Monty Williams, who is grieving over the tragic loss of his wife Ingrid. Williams has been on leave since February 11th. Both Cheeks and Williams are NBA lifers, and were brought onto the staff to help Billy Donovan acclimate to the NBA. Without them, Donovan is left with a lot of assistants that primarily have NCAA coaching experience. Mark Bryant is an exception, but he doesn't have nearly the resume that Williams or Cheeks does.

On the player side of things, the Thunder recently made a surprise signing. Nazr Mohammed was signed out of free agency yesterday. From 2010-2012, Mohammed was the Thunder's primary backup center behind Kendrick Perkins. Mohammed bought defense, rebounding, and a sure hand on offense. Mobility and a lack of scoring versatility was certainly a problem for Mohammed, and that's what ultimately saw him cut out of the rotation come playoff time. With Steven Adams and Enes Kanter currently manning the center spot, Mohammed would likely only get minutes in an emergency situation. Nevertheless, Mohammed's familiarity with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Collison should bring some good vibes to the locker room. Mohammed's experience can certainly help guide OKC's young big men as well.

Tonight, I'll be keeping an eye on Donovan's rotations. Back on Thursday against the Clippers, it appeared that he wanted to give time to backup point guard Cameron Payne again. But Payne only saw three minutes of action during the first half, and was never heard from again. Indeed, Donovan didn't play Payne at all on Friday. But substitute backup point guard Kevin Durant hasn't been succeeding, exactly. 6 Turnovers against the Clips on Thursday, 9 against the Warriors on Friday. Here's hoping Payne can find a way to get the minutes he deserves.

Anyway, given the nature of where the Thunder are at right now, this game is a must win. The Bucks have the league's worst defensive rebounding percentage, as well as the league's worst three point attempt rate. Milwaukee is exploitable, as long as the Thunder go to their offensive options and keep their lineup big.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 120, Milwaukee Bucks 117.

What do you think of today's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 63
(Lost 2)

(Won 1)
March 6th, 2016
The Bank of Montreal Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
2:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Wisconsin
Injury Report: Michael Carter-Williams (Out), Steve Novak (Out), John Henson (Out), Greivis Vasquez (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 29 (W 131-123)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Giannis Antetokoumpo
Andre Roberson SG O.J. Mayo
Kevin Durant SF Khris Middleton
Serge Ibaka PF Jabari Parker
Steven Adams C Greg Monroe