The Minnesota Timberwolves are back in action on Thursday night as Anthony Edwards and Co. will look to right the ship against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. This contest will be the Milwaukee homecoming and debut for Marquette alumnus Doc Rivers, who is just 1-4 since taking over as Head Coach.
Note that the Wolves’ trade for Monte Morris is not yet official, as the Detroit Pistons need to make a corresponding move that trims their roster down a spot. Morris was not listed on Wednesday night’s status report for the Pistons game against the Sacramento Kings, while neither Shake Milton nor Troy Brown Jr. appear on the Wolves’ submitted status report.
- Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (35-16) at Milwaukee Bucks (33-18)
- When: Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM CT
- Where: Fiserv Forum — Milwaukee, WI
- TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen, and Jon Krawczynski)
- Radio: Wolves App, iHeart Radio
- Line: Wolves +1.5 | Total: 225.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
Updated as of Thursday 2/8 at 6:00 PM CT
- Leonard Miller (illness)
- Troy Brown Jr. (NWT; traded to Pistons)
- Jaylen Clark (right Achilles tendon rupture rehab)
- Jordan McLaughlin (right hip pointer)
- Shake Milton (NWT; traded to Pistons)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (right knee patellar tendinitis)
- Brook Lopez (personal reasons)
- Jae Crowder (left ankle sprain)
- Damian Lillard (left ankle sprain)
- Chris Livingston (G League assignment)
- Robin Lopez (NWT; traded to Kings)
- Khris Middleton (left ankle sprain)
- Cameron Payne (NWT; traded to Sixers)
- TyTy Washington Jr. (two-way contract)
What to Watch For
As is always the case when taking on the Bucks, answering the “How will _______ defend Giannis?” is the central question towards determining the outcome of the game.
Well, the Timberwolves did a pretty brutal job of defending the two-time MVP last season. Antetokounmpo averaged 34.5 points, 17.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the team’s two matchups, both wins for Milwaukee. Giannis shot a whopping 41 free throws between the two contests, as pretty much everyone on the Timberwolves — except for Ant! — that matched up with Giannis struggled to defend him without fouling.
I would expect Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch to align his defense like this:
- Mike Conley on Malik Beasley
- Anthony Edwards on Jae Crowder (assuming he starts for Middleton)
- Jaden McDaniels on Damian Lillard (if Dame plays)
- Karl-Anthony Towns on Brook Lopez
- Rudy Gobert on Giannis
Finch dating back to the Playoffs last season has found success assigning Gobert on a non-shooting perimeter player, while Towns checks the burlier 5. This strategy has 1) kept Gobert near the rim to contest shots and grab rebounds, 2) invited an inefficient shooter to take more shots than normal, and 3) helped keep Towns out of foul trouble.
That’s a prettay, prettay, prettay good trio of outcomes if you ask me.
But Giannis is a bit of a different case. The risk you run with playing Gobert off of the 2021 Finals MVP is that you are also giving him a runway to take off flying towards the rim. But it’s worth a shot.
Giannis this season is taking 65% of his shots at the rim and 35% of his shots either from the mid-range or beyond the arc. He is shooting 78% at the rim (92nd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), 35% from mid-range (25th percentile) and just 27% from deep (sixth percentile).
Any plan that has a decent chance of increasing Antetokounmpo’s average shot distance is a good one. But you need to have a backup plan, and a backup plan for the backup plan with someone as great as Giannis. The good news is that the Wolves have the luxury of showing different big bodied defenders with long wingspans — Towns, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels — to throw different looks at him.
Something I appreciate about Finch and Defensive Coordinator Elston Turner is that they aren’t afraid of trying different looks, matchups and schemes defensively, so expect them to cycle through their options if Giannis starts to find a rhythm.
The Need for Perimeter Scoring
While Milwaukee has one of, if not the best shooting backcourts in the league in Lillard and Beasley, the opposite can be said about their defense. Both players are turnstiles on the drive and often struggle with losing their matchup while playing off-ball, which should create plenty of opportunities for Conley, Edwards and McDaniels.
Depending upon who starts between Crowder and Pat Connaughton, either Edwards or McDaniels will draw the Beasley matchup and they will need to relentlessly attack their old teammate for profit.
Only the Indiana Pacers (1,880) have allowed more unassisted points on 2-pointers than the Bucks (1,590), per PBP Stats. The Bucks have also allowed the highest frequency of both wide open 2-point shot attempts (nearest defender 6+ feet away; 5.0%) and second-highest frequency of open 2-point shot attempts (nearest defender 4-6 feet away; 14.6%).
However, they rank near the bottom in both metrics on 3-pointers, largely because they have emphasized running shooters off the line. Milwaukee opponent 3-point attempt rate (33.8% of total shots) ranks fifth in the NBA.
The more the Wolves’ trio of perimeter players can get past the first line of defense and spray the ball out to get the defense in rotation and create open 3-point looks, they better they’ll be. Milwaukee’s starting five does an excellent job of preventing shot attempts at the rim, but their blended and bench lineups have really struggled in that department, so that will become an even greater point of emphasis at the end of the first and third quarters, and beginning of the second and fourth frames. With Bobby Portis being dangled as the Bucks’ main salary matching asset in trade talks, there is a chance he may not play tomorrow, which would even further complicate their defensive woes.
For Edwards and McDaniels, especially, they will need to be active drivers in their non-starter minutes to do the bulk of their scoring. They will have a mismatch on them more often than they won’t, and scoring efficiently in the mid-range and at the rim will be a crucial determinant of who wins and who loses this one.
And for Conley, with Milwaukee now under Rivers, they are back in their more standard drop coverage from previous years, that will create more opportunities for him to score in the two-man game with Gobert, regardless of who is out there for the Bucks.