The Boston Celtics played one of their best games of the season defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 112-90 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. From the initial tip-off, the Celtics controlled every facet of this game. Specifically, the team defense stood out in this win more than other areas. They went with a defense-first game plan centered around slowing down the presumptive MVP of the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. After this result, the Celtics showed that they can do this successfully and seized early control of this series.
Coach Brad Stevens and the team had the game plan to throw big bodies to guard Giannis outside and then collapse everyone on him when he got into the paint. The goal was to make him as uncomfortable as possible. If he cannot score around the rim, this drastically affects his ability to be the dominant scorer on their team. This was executed to perfection almost every time he touched the ball.
Stevens talked about this complete team defense after the game. He said, “we tried to guard Giannis as hard as we could. He still ended up with 22 points and a bunch of threes there in the second half. That was a team collective effort.” Even as 22 points seems like a great game, the way to beat the Bucks in this series will be limiting Giannis to around that number and make other players beat you.
Al Horford carried the defensive burden for most of this game against Antetokounmpo. Horford played incredible all day long frustrating Giannis over and over again. In the 24 plays he was matched up with Giannis, Horford only allowed four points on 1-6 shooting form the field, including two blocks. It was a dominating performance that will loom large in Giannis’ head moving forward.
Here, in the first clip, Horford did a great job of picking up Antetokounmpo early in his drive at the top of the key. This restricts his ability to get a head of steam and drive down into the paint. Instead, Horford takes him on and deters his ability to get to the rim impacting the layup attempt. Shout out to Jayson Tatum for collapsing and trying to poke the ball away on the drive as well which makes Giannis have to get past yet another body.
The next clip could not be forgotten for this analysis of the defense. It was the best highlight of the whole game for Horford. He slipped a bit letting Giannis get a step driving into the paint but made an fantastic recovery finishing with a double block right back in his face. This was an encapsulation of the whole game for both players.
Al Horford met Giannis at the rim TWICE pic.twitter.com/uuR8X9BvTI— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 28, 2019
These two clips were a perfect example of showing what the Celtics are going to try and do against him in this series. They will body him up with anyone that will affect the way he gets to the rim. As the next clip shows, Jaylen Brown also tries to get in his way at the top of the key. Giannis has a great spin move to get around him, but then he is off balanced leading to another Horford swat as he was the second line of defense. It was the team effort that worked so well against him in this game. Giannis makes his money taking his long strides and getting to the basket, so the Celtics are trying to find any way they can to deter that.
Another Celtic who found himself paired up against Giannis a good amount of times this game was Aron Baynes. He was another big body that Stevens knew he could throw at Giannis to impact any shots he had around the rim. Baynes had 16 plays against him limiting to five points on 1-4 shooting from the field. While he does not have the lateral quickness, he does a better job at sitting back and making Giannis shoot around the long, outreached arms of Baynes.
Baynes here does a perfect job of sitting back on the pick and roll, guarding the drive of both Hill and Antetokounmpo crashing to the rim. Hill probably passed the ball too early, but it still made Baynes become an isolated defender where he showed off a great ability to guard the rim. Giannis was then uncomfortable which led to another missed close-range shot. Morris also did a great job of help defense once Giannis made the move into the paint. As we saw all game long, he gets into a rut if there are long arms around the basket for him to have to navigate around. It is frustrating for him and will turn him into a jump shooter which the Celtics will take every day of the week.
The key to this series is Giannis Antetokounmpo. That is clear as day to both teams and most of the NBA audience. The Celtics came into the series as underdogs, but if they can replicate this defensive success each game, their chances exponentially grow. It starts with Al Horford and Aron Baynes, and then it trickles down the roster to others that will have to continue to do their part to get in the way of his drives to the rim. The whole team defense has found the strategy for success against Giannis. They have executed it to perfection in the first game, and now, they must harness that same mindset and intensity moving forward.