Wednesday night, the Boston Celtics will go to battle with the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that unceremoniously knocked them out of the playoffs in the second round last year. Much has changed since then on both sides, but unfortunately for Boston, the one thing that remains the same is the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The Greek Freak” is as fearsome on the court as his name is difficult to spell. The reigning MVP is going to provide the sternest defensive test of this young NBA season. Al Horford has left for pastures new, while Aron Baynes is sunning it up in Phoenix, leaving the team short on “Giannis stoppers.”
So where is the defense going to come from? Will it be a combination of guys tasked with taking turns to try and stop him? Or will Brad Stevens try to implement a defensive scheme to limit his impact?
The most likely answer is: a little bit of everything above. As the old adage goes “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him”.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. During game one of the playoff series last season the Celtics played a sophisticated brand of defense on Antetokounmpo, giving him problems from the first to last whistle.
In that game, they held him to “just” 7 of 21 shooting, 8 rebounds and 2 assists.
They contained him.
So how did they do it?
Here, Baynes is cutting off the drive by making himself big on the high helpline. He knows that he isn’t quick enough to close out on Giannis, so instead, he chooses to sag and cut off the drive as it happens.
Executed in divine fashion, Baynes cuts off the lane and forces Giannis left, but a crafty spin move gets Giannis into the paint. However, Baynes has kept his distance, allowing himself the space and time to slide his feet and meet Giannis in the paint to contest the shot attempt.
A similar play takes place here, but this time with Marcus Morris defending.
But who is going to play this role now? Both Morris and Baynes are no longer on the roster.
The first thought would be Enes Kanter, who played drop defense quite well during Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals. Alas, he has been sidelined for the game due to injury and will not be suiting up for the game.
Enes Kanter is OUT tomorrow vs the Milwaukee Bucks.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) October 29, 2019
Daniel Theis is questionable to play. Theis did practice today.
Daniel Theis would have been the second option to play this style of defense. He isn’t the quickest laterally, so a drop would suit him in this match up. He also showed his credentials as a dropping big when tasked with guarding Pascal Siakam on Friday night, as evidenced by the play below.
Unfortunately, Theis is questionable for the game, and it’s doubtful he will see much court time at this point. This leaves Vincent Poirier to do “the dirty job.” Poirier is a largely untested commodity at this level, but he has the size and speed to fill the role Baynes did so well last year.
Robert Williams is the other candidate, but he has not shown the patience required on defense to play this type of coverage. He prefers to use his size and athleticism to close out on his man once the begin to drive towards the restricted area. Giannis would have a field day.
Alternatively, the Celtics could go with smaller, more athletic wings to try and disrupt Giannis’s offensive flow. It is something they tried during the playoffs that provided mixed results.
Take this play for example, Giannis beats Jayson Tatum outside the three-point line and drives towards the basket. Tatum uses his speed to get himself back in front of his man and contest the shot, forcing a miss as a result.
This is what the Celtics will be hoping for on possessions like this, that their wings are able to recover when beaten off the dribble.
The Celtics meetings with the Bucks over the last few years have been littered with plays such as this, they have thrown the kitchen sink at ways to stop the Greek Freak. Semi Ojeleye has proven capable at slowing him down in limited minutes, while Jaylen Brown has also had some success.
Then there’s the rookie, Grant Williams, who may be primed to slow Giannis down. He is an intelligent ball player who will understand the need to get under Giannis at every opportunity. Having already produced on that end of the floor over his first three games, Williams may find himself thrust into a role he may or may not be ready for. Guess we will find out tomorrow night.
Tomorrow night won't be easy but it's a challenge our team is prepared to face. pic.twitter.com/gmLMPJSoIW— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 29, 2019
Lets take solace in the fact that the Celtics held Giannis to an offensive rating of 103.2 in the regular season last year, down from his season average of 108.6. In the playoffs last year, his offensive rating of 109.7 fell to 107.7 against Boston. While these are not sharp declines in production, it does indicate that he has a tougher time playing against Brad Stevens’ defense.
It’s going to take a group effort and multiple defensive schemes in order to contain one of the most versatile and physically gifted players in the league. Having two of the teams starting caliber big men on the injury list is not ideal, to say the least.
If all else fails, perhaps Marcus Smart can do what he does best.