As the Boston Celtics prepare to face Milwaukee dollars, stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo seems like the number one priority, but with a player as dominant as Antetokounmpo, stopping him is rarely an option. The Greek Freak has scored under 20 points just seven times this season, and the Bucks have always gone 4-3 in those games. Sometimes it’s more about slowing players down than stopping them.
However, beating the Bucks isn’t just about slowing down Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee have become a permanent championship contender because of the plays they put around the 27-year-old superstar. The fact that Khris Middleton will miss the entire series is a blow to their star power, but they still have plenty of guys ready to step in.
Boston will have to consider not only Antetokounmpo defensively, but also players like Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and even Bobby Portis. Not having a game plan for Middleton will make their lives easier, but stopping Milwaukee’s powerful offensive attack will always be a tall order.
Starting with the snake’s head, Antetokounmpo is a monster of nature. He averaged 28.6 points per night in the first round, shooting 56.8% from the field. Luckily for the Celtics, they have better defenders and a better defensive scheme than the Chicago Bulls To do. But Antetokounmpo is good enough to tear through any defense placed in front of him. That being said, let’s take a look at what has and hasn’t worked against him in the past.
It is above all a question of personnel. Look at the Bulls. Nikola Vucevic was too slow to stay ahead of him, Javonte Green was too small to guard him effectively, Derrick Jones Jr. was too weak to give him body, etc. Antetokounmpo knew this and took full advantage of it.
That won’t be the case for Boston. The Celtics have several players who can stay with Antetokounmpo. Al Horford is the first guy that comes to mind, followed by players like Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Marcus Smart. Not all of them are the perfect match, but they are smart enough and perhaps more importantly big enough on the defensive end of the ball to at least give Antetokounmpo pause. In three games against the Celtics this season, he’s averaged 28.3 points on 53.4% shooting — a bit below his season averages. But the key to defending the Bucks isn’t slowing down Antetokounmpo. It’s all around that.
When Antetokounmpo takes the ball in his hands, everything else opens up. He has become such a dominant threat that he opens up opportunities for the rest of his teammates. Even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, opposing defenses have to care about his every move. He’s always one step away from dunking any player you put in front of him. This is where defensive game plans come in. But again, while the Celtics would love to slow him down, it’s more about minimizing the damage done by those around him.
First and foremost, let’s look at a defense that has worked against the Bucks in the past – “Giannis’s Wall”. In 2019, Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors burst a defense that focused solely on stopping Antetokounmpo. Essentially, it was a 1-2-2 zone, where the three defenders at the top would crumble on Antetokounmpo, urging him to make a move, and more often than not, forcing a turnover or a bad shot.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, that was 2019. While Boston definitely has the personnel to pull it off, Antetokounmpo has improved so much that he no longer panics under pressure. And more importantly, he has better players to evacuate now. Instead of kicking the ball around Eric Bledsoe and a young Pat Connaughton, he has extinct shooters like Allen and Holiday (who has improved since his playoff shooting woes). With all these guns around, Boston can’t quite afford to shut out Antetokounmpo the way teams have in the past.
WillSoTrill Hoops made two great videos on these schemes against Antetokounmpo, so be sure to check them out for more.
Let’s be crazy for a second. Obviously, when the Raptors famous ran the box-and-one against Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals, it made Nurse look like a genius. What if Udoka used a similar strategy?
The first thought that comes to mind is that Horford might be a bit too slow to chase Antetokounmpo all night. He seems to be the best option to protect him directly, but if the match becomes an athletic meeting, he could be gassed. Tatum might be the guy, but getting him to exert so much energy defensively could be costly, even if he’s been doing it for the duration of the game. brooklyn nets series.
Enter Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart is only 6’3 but that has never stopped him before. Throwing him at Antetokounmpo to harass him would leave the rest of the Celtics defense worried about Milwaukee shooters. He could run, draw offensive fouls and make life difficult for the Greek Freak. And even when he did get past Smart, he would be met by Horford and Williams crashing on top of him in the paint, allowing Tatum, Brown and Smart to spin out and cover the shooters.
This type of defense is not one the Celtics could get away with for long stretches. It would only be something to explore when Antetokounmpo has the ball in his hands as he crosses the half-court. Other than that, they should stick to the basics.
man to man
This is where the Celtics will shine. Their rock-solid defensive style has propelled them among the best defensive teams in the league. Just because Antetokounmpo is on the other side of things doesn’t mean they have to change anything about what they’ve been doing. It just worked against Kevin Durant, so why not throw the same style of defense at Antetokounmpo?
Instead of Tatum guarding him, Horford will likely be Antetokounmpo’s main defender early in the games, but after that watch out for Grant Williams. He’s guarded Antetokounmpo more than any other Celtic this season, matching him for 10:15 minutes over two games. He held Antetokounmpo to 4 of 10 shots from the floor.
This piece was too pretty to leave out.
No matter who is covering Antetokounmpo, Udoka’s all-out defense should do wonders against Milwaukee. Everyone in Boston’s rotation (apart from Payton Pritchard) should feel comfortable sticking with Antetokounmpo for the stretches, especially knowing that the help defense is almost surely on the way.
More importantly, this style of defense allows the Celtics to care about Milwaukee’s other weapons. Horford, Tatum, Williams and whoever the Celtics throw at Antetokounmpo are smart enough to stay ahead of him, and even if they don’t, Robert Williams will be waiting with help. That leaves perimeter defenders like Smart and Brown on the outside ready to take on shooters like Allen, Holiday and Lopez.
Additionally, Antetokounmpo’s shooting struggles allow the Celtics to focus on Milwaukee’s other threats. Here it’s Middleton, but with him for the foreseeable future it could be anyone from Portis to Holiday to Allen, if need be.
Failsafe sends help into the paint. This is exactly how the Celtics treat Joel Embiid, and if Antetokounmpo catches the ball low, using the same tactic would be the obvious plan. It doesn’t matter who keeps Antetokounmpo in the post – the corner defender should provide some help regardless.
Boston is one of the best defenses in the NBA for a reason. Brad Stevens has given Udoka a group of guys who can all keep anyone else in the NBA, and that allows them to turn everything around, cutting off Antetokounmpo’s chance of finding a mismatch. In turn, the rest of the Bucks won’t have as much room to work as they had against, say, the Bulls.
And let’s not sugarcoat it: Middleton’s absence is a killer for Milwaukee. Having an All-Star caliber perimeter threat like Middleton on the outside who is able to create for himself and others would be extremely helpful in breaking down the Boston zone. But now the Bucks find themselves with Antetokounmpo and Holiday as their primary ball handlers. As great as these two are, it’s easier to deal with two All-Stars than to deal with three.
As the Celtics try to stop Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo-led offense, as crazy as it sounds, they shouldn’t change a thing. It worked against Durant, it worked against talented opponents all season, so why change that? Udoka is talented enough to make adjustments on the fly, but until he needs to, there’s no point changing the NBA’s best defensive scheme.