Happier days ahead: Eric Bledsoe and Giannis named to the All-Defense first-team
In what must be a cruel joke on the city of Milwaukee, the NBA media members voted Bucks' stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe to the league's All-Defense first-team less than 24 hours after the Toronto Raptors torched the nets for 120 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Malcolm Brogdon (one first-team vote, one second-team vote), Khris Middleton (one second-team vote) and Brook Lopez (one second-team vote) were also considered for one of the 10 all-defensive spots.
Obviously, the all-defense votes were submitted well before this series, but it still stings to see the Bucks honored for defense when the Scotiabank Arena nets are still flickering from Toronto's "NBA Jam"-esque performance on Tuesday. If anything, though, the presence of two first-teamers and three other high-level defenders likely means a course correction will come on Thursday when the series returns to Milwaukee. Perhaps Giannis, Bledsoe and company simply needed a reminder of their typical defensive dominance.
Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe are the first Bucks players to appear on the first-team since Sidney Moncrief in 1990-91 and just the third Milwaukee duo to do so in franchise history. Around the association, the Bucks' stalwart pairing is the first set of teammates to earn first-team defensive honors since, well, last year, when New Orleans' Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis (remember when he played actual games?) accomplished such a feat.
Antetokounmpo can tack this honor onto his ever-growing resume. The three-time All-Star already had one defensive award to his name – a second-team finish in 2017-18 – and will likely add an MVP and a third All-NBA credit in the coming weeks. This is Bledsoe's first NBA honor since he was voted onto the All-Rookie second-team in 2010-11. Needless to say, this award will likely move to the top of the shelf for the recently minted $70 million man.
Milwaukee led the NBA in defensive efficiency this season, a massive leap from 17th under Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty's esteemed leadership in 2018-19. Antetokounmpo finished second in defensive rebounds per game (10.3), and was one of just four players to average at least 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals. He also ranked third in defensive win shares.
Bledsoe, meanwhile, made a habit of hounding some of the league's top guards, most notably limiting Houston's James Harden to just 7-18 shooting and five turnovers in the 73 possessions in which the two squared off. The squat, fire-hydrant-of-a-point guard similarly pestered Kyrie Irving; NBA.com says Irving shot just 37 percent over 235 possessions against Bledsoe in the regular season and playoffs. Those stats should not be treated as gospel, but they match the eye test, especially after watching Irving's truly awful second round series against Milwaukee earlier this month.
(For what it's worth, Kyle Lowry is only 8-15 with five turnovers to two assists against Bledsoe in the Eastern Conference Finals. Bledsoe hasn't been his best self defensively this series – and he has been an unmitigated disaster on offense – but Lowry's resurgent series has largely been a team-wide failure for the Bucks.)
The bad news for Milwaukee, if there is any, is that Antetokounmpo is unlikely to win Defensive Player of the Year when it is officially announced next month. Utah's Rudy Gobert (196 total votes, 97 first-place votes) and Oklahoma City's Paul George (195 total votes, 96 first-place votes) both barely edged out Giannis (193 total votes, 94 first-place votes), which means Gobert will presumably grab his second consecutive DPOY award. All three of Gobert, George and Giannis were named finalists for DPOY.
Of course, Antetkounmpo, George and Harden were also named finalists for MVP, so there will still be that small silver lining for Bucks' fans when awards night rolls around on June 24.
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