There’s one thing the Pelicans and the Bucks have in common. While the two are in different stages of development, everything boils down to their superstars.
Outside of Giannis and Zion, nothing else matters quite as much for these two teams. Everything besides the two stars is secondary and peripheral. Middleton and Ingram are excellent basketball players, to be sure. But Giannis and Zion are the future, not just for their respective franchises, but of the entire NBA.
Giannis has been the association’s MVP for two years and is among the best basketball players in the world. Williamson is seemingly already slated to be the face of the NBA in the years to come.
This is why there is a certain gravitas that comes with watching the two slug it out against each other. Here are a few things to look out for in Saturday’s matchup.
Young King vs The MVP
The two hyper-athletic bigs are basketball’s biggest anomalies right now. They’re forces of nature in their own right with the quickness to match. Nowhere else in the past have basketball fans seen this blend of size, motor, and strength.
We’ve only had one proper glimpse of what this matchup might look like. It went Milwaukee’s way as Giannis dominated with 34 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists on 12-17 shooting.
When it comes to matchups, Giannis seems to be this team’s obvious and only answer to Zion. With Bobby Portis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo on him in the preseason, Zion went off with ease. He ended the game with 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 assists.
One thing to look out for is Williamson’s shooting. He’s no Stephen Curry, but he’s shown that he can stroke it from deep when given the space to launch. Luckily for the Bucks, the former number one pick is shooting 20% from deep so far for the season.
Per NBA Stats, in the 3:50 or 16.8 partial possessions when Giannis was the sole defender on Williamson, he went 1-for-7 (14.3%). Giannis also blocked Zion once and generated one turnover.
The Greek Freak’s height and wingspan should put him at a decisive advantage in this matchup.
The Bucks give up a lot of threes. JJ Redick, although in a bit of a slump, can make a lot of threes. It’s a match made in basketball heaven (or hell for Bucks fans.)
The three-ball, which the Bucks love to concede like handouts, has been JJ’s calling card his entire career. He’s adept at coming off screens into a quick release and making difficult, contested shots. Milwaukee’s guards are going to have their hands full chasing the Duke legend around.
When the teams first scrimmaged in the bubble, it was Redick’s hot shooting that won the game for the Pelicans. Shooters shoot, after all, especially the elite ones. After bricking his first five attempts, Reddick scored all of his 20 points in the game’s third frame. That was when he was against the likes of Wesley Matthews and Eric Bledsoe, both of whom are no slouches on defense.
The good news is that besides Redick, the Pelicans don’t have many pure shooters to speak of. Only three Pelicans who take at least three treys per game are shooting more than 35% from that range. As a team, New Orleans is 28th in three-point attempts and percentage, and 29th in total makes from deep.
Unless he heats up quickly, Redick on his lonesome likely won’t sink the Bucks with his shooting. As it stands, he’s only sinking 1.6 of his 5.3 attempts per game from distance, an abysmal 30.0% shooting clip. The Bucks need Donte DiVincenzo or Pat Connaughton to lock up on the perimeter to gain the upper hand.
The Wing Situation
It’s an established fact that Khris Middleton scores best when he’s free from guarding the opposition’s best wing.
When Giannis is clamped by the pairing of Williamson and Steven Adams, Khash Money will have to generate buckets on his own. With Torrey Craig carrying a bit of the defensive load in their last game against the Raptors, Middleton churned out a casual 24/10/7. It was just another day at the office for the two-time All-Star.
If Mike Budenholzer has learned anything about rotations from the past two games, Craig should have some time trying to slow down Brandon Ingram.
Bothering the Most Improved Player is a challenge on his own, but so is scoring on him. Ingram is a long and lanky forward who can light it up on one end, and pester shots into misses on the other. His motor has been questioned at times, but not his talent.
Can’t Forget the Bledshow
It would be disingenuous not to mention that this matchup will be Eric Bledsoe’s second time back in Milwaukee as a Pelican. Reunions with former players always have a certain sting to them. At the end of the day, though, the Bucks’ decision to flip Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday was the right move.
The Bledshow was an excellent addition during his tenure in Wisconsin, marking a significant upgrade in the Jason Kidd era. His on-court presence also gave the Bucks its first taste at something resembling a Big Three. Khris, Giannis, and Eric routinely carried games back then.
It would have been the perfect match, but his postseason woes were well-documented. Through three seasons, he averaged 13.1 points, 3.9 boards, and 4.6 assists on meager 41/25/73 shooting in the playoffs. These marked a departure across the board from his steady regular-season averages of 16.3, 4.4, and 5.3 on 48/34/75 shooting. To put it bluntly, it was time to move on.
"Not just players, but my brothers off the court. Even though I’m in a different uniform I’ll still give them the shirt off my back. That’s the bond, friendship we built while I was there.” – @EBled2 on his time in Milwaukee
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) December 17, 2020
Nevertheless, the matchup between the traded guards will definitely be one to watch. As it stands, Bledsoe’s elite slashing is raising the floor for New Orleans the same way it did for Milwaukee.
His shot looks much better, too. He’s the team’s best shooter with at least four threes attempted per game, with a hot 40.6% shooting clip from distance. He’s also their top scorer outside of the team’s two stars, averaging 12.8 ppg and 3.6 apg.
The Pelicans aren’t the league’s most potent offense. They’re in the bottom eight teams in points per game and three-point percentage. Despite their personnel, they’re the seventh-worst defensive team.
But the Bucks should rest their laurels on the stats. New Orleans still has a very capable host of role players to back up their surging stars. Milwaukee will have to respect this scrappy team if they want another win.
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