Giannis Antetokounmpo submitted a stellar stat line against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, at least by normal standards. The reigning MVP ended the evening with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. It wasn’t enough, as the Greek Freak and the Milwaukee Bucks fell to Boston 116-105.
That Antetokounmpo’s production could be interpreted as anything other than impressive is both a testament to his greatness and the Celtics’ effectiveness in defending him. With Al Horford and Aron Baynes finding new homes this offseason, Boston was left searching for a new face to take on the task of serving as the team’s primary defender against the Bucks’ great ball of limbs and ferocious athleticism.
Marcus Smart was given the initial assignment, one which he embraced. Smart applied equal parts strength and craft when Antetokounmpo barreled towards the paint, alternating between applying physicality, using his quick hands to poke the ball away, and timing up Giannis’ moves of the bounce to throw his body in harm’s way to draw offensive fouls.
When Smart rested - and later when he was tasked with slowing down a red-hot Khris Middleton - Semi Ojeleye took up the mantel as the Celtics’ designated Antetokounmpo roadblock. Ojeleye has quick feet, and is built like a brick wall, one of the few people on earth that can take a shot to the chest from Giannis without losing any ground. Such was a major asset for Boston this evening, as Ojeleye kept Antetokounmpo from accessing the paint as effectively as any one person could reasonably be expected to.
“Marcus did a great job, but Semi did a great job, too,” Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens told NBC Sports’ Abby Chin after the game. “Those guys split minutes on him. They both did a really good job.”
The duo’s performance was particularly impressive in light of Jaylen Brown’s late scratch due to injury. “Losing Jaylen before the game was hurtful,” Stevens said of defending Antetokounmpo. “If they [Smart and Ojeleye] each played maybe 18 minutes on him, you though he [Brown] was going to play at least a percentage of that.”
Ultimately, concern over Brown’s absence proved to be much ado about nothing. Smart, Ojeleye, and the rest of the Celtics defense had things well under control.
“I thought those two did an unbelievable job,” Stevens reiterated. “And then when we switched, I thought our bigs did a really good job of figuring out ways to get back and make it as difficult as possible.”
That wasn’t the case for the entire game. Boston struggled to recover back to shooters when its defense broke down to start the game. Scrambles are inevitable when a team needs to focus as much energy on one player as is required to slow down Giannis, but the Celtics’ early efforts were decidedly uncoordinated.
Things improved as the game progressed, and Boston was aided by some seriously cold second-half shooting from Milwaukee. The Bucks managed to hit 5 of their 23 three-point looks after the break, compared to 9 of 22 prior.
Such swings are a danger of Milwaukee’s aggressively spaced three-point heavy offensive philosophy. Perhaps that means the Celtics’ defensive effectiveness was predicated on luck, but putting itself in a position to take advantage of three-point variance meant that Boston had successfully kept Antetokounmpo from taking over entirely. They deserve a lot of credit for that.