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Celtics’ keys to defending Giannis Antetokounmpo

Short answer: The Unicorn Killer, Al Horford.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

On October 18th, the night after the Celtics lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first game of the season, they hosted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden on the second leg of a back-to-back. Emotions were running high following Gordon Hayward’s horrific ankle injury. Boston needed to give their fans something positive to think about with a win.

Antetokounmpo had other plans, going for 37 points and 13 rebounds in a Bucks win. It was a statement game against the NBA’s eventual top defense, announcing his plans to ascend into the conversation of world’s best player.

However, the Bucks didn’t become the team people were expecting this season. With inconsistent play on both ends and a coaching change in the middle of the year, Milwaukee now finds itself in the seventh seed and playing the Celtics in the first round. Boston found ways to make life more difficult for Antetokounmpo over the course of three more regular season meetings and will have to continue on that trend if they hope to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Antetokounmpo averaged 33.5 points per game against the Celtics in the regular season, his second highest average facing any opponent. The two teams split the season series, but aside from his October performance, Boston limited the effect Antetokounmpo’s scoring had on the game’s outcome.

Brad Stevens’ initial plan of attack for defending “The Greak Freak” was to deploy Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on him. Since Antetokounmpo plays like an agile wing, the Celtics decided to go with their strongest wing defenders. That didn’t work out so well.

Brown and Tatum are both long in their own right, but they had trouble dealing with the absurd wingspan of Antetokounmpo and the amount of space he covered off the bounce. The Celtics also tended to leave Brown and Tatum on an island. With a lack of help defense, Antetokounmpo feasted.

Stevens couldn’t let Milwaukee’s cornerstone player get that many straight line drives to the basket. The Celtics made an adjustment that will almost certainly be the strategy used in the upcoming series. The key is Al Horford, Unicorn Killer.

Antetokounmpo can’t shoot very well. It’s been a limitation for him throughout his career, and while he has improved slightly, he still takes 74.1% of his field goals from within 16 feet of the basket.

When Horford was the primary defender, he gave a decent amount of cushion to prevent drives. Of course, Antetokounmpo still tried to get to the basket, but Horford was fundamentally sound and disciplined enough to get in front and presented enough size and length to affect the shot. Eventually Antetokounmpo started to take the contact and settle for fall away jump shots.

It is very likely that we see Horford exclusively on Antetokounmpo in the half court. Antetokounmpo won’t opt for the fall away every time and the rest of the Celtics will have to work as a team and help. There will be scenarios where he gets past Horford, but Stevens has adjusted for this as well.

There are no more islands while defending Antetokounmpo. If he turns the corner on a drive, multiple Celtics are collapsing on him. He is a good passer, averaging almost five assists per game, but he tends to get tunnel vision and tries to finish through everyone.

If he starts making the necessary kick outs, the Celtics will have to pick and choose who they leave open on the wing. Milwaukee doesn’t shoot the three very well, ranking 22nd in the league for three point percentage, so Boston should be able to get away with collapsing on Antetokounmpo when he drives.

Horford isn’t the only option Stevens can throw at Antetokounmpo. Rookie forward Semi Ojeleye showed that he is more than capable of matching up with him in prior meetings. What he lacks in length compared to Horford, Brown and Tatum, Ojeleye makes up for it with strength combined with lateral quickness.

With his thick, jacked frame and quick feet, Ojeleye can get into Antetokounmpo’s air space and keep him from bullying him to the basket. This forces Antetokounmpo to opt for more post ups rather than drives. Boston will want to force him into more post ups, as he only scores 0.88 points per possession in those play types while taking the 14th most attempts in the NBA (52nd percentile).

If Horford needs a break or ends up in foul trouble, the Celtics can look to Ojeleye to hold down the fort and make his mark on this series.

In the half court, Boston should have enough of a concrete plan to defend Antetokounmpo and hope for the best. The next challenge is to prevent him from scoring in transition. He scores the third most transition points in the NBA, behind only Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. The Bucks as a unit love to get out on the break as well, ranking as the third highest scoring team in transition this season.

The Celtics have done an excellent job of limiting their opponents fast break opportunities. They allowed the fifth fewest fast break points in the NBA, but had issues keeping Antetokounmpo from grabbing an outlet pass and driving right into the lane for easy finishes.

The main issue revolved around Boston not being more deliberate in picking him up in the open court. In both instances above, Antetokounmpo was able to create mismatches against the likes of Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis where he easily got to the rim.

The Celtics have to treat this the same as their help defense. Whether he has the ball or not, Boston has to locate Antetokounmpo on the break and make sure they have someone on him that can at least hope to stop him if he gets the ball.

Similarly to their half court defense on Antetokounmpo, the Celtics’ transition game improved over the course of the season against him.

58.3% of Antetokounmpo’s points come from fast breaks. He is already a handful in the half court due to his length and agility at that size, but his physical gifts are on full display on the break. One of Boston’s main points of emphasis defensively in this series will likely be to limit his transition touches.

This series won’t be an easy one for the Celtics thanks to the injuries they’ve suffered to key players. However, they have a solid foundation for stopping their opponent’s best player. Antetokounmpo has the 13th highest usage rate in the NBA, and leads the Bucks in points and rebounds and is second in assists. It’s safe to say the Celtics’ success in this series might have something to do with how well they handle The Greek Freak.

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