Defending Giannis Antetokounmpo has become the NBA’s version of Game Of Thrones, except the wall can be red, green, white, blue, or even pink. Regardless of what team he’s facing, Giannis consistently faces a sea of bodies, all lined up in the hopes of slowing him down, often with little effect.
On Christmas Day, the Boston Celtics found a way to contain the Milwaukee Bucks star, limiting his attempts at the rim and forcing him to settle for mid-range jumpers throughout the contest. In fact, in 35 minutes of game time, Giannis only took 3 shots within the restricted area, converting two of them.
Of course, Giannis is at his best in the open floor, and given how well the Celtics shot the ball, attacked the rim, and fought for second-chance points, he had to settle for half-court offensive actions, which somewhat limited his ability to get going downhill.
One of Boston’s biggest adjustments in guarding Giannis in the half-court on Sunday was that rather than putting three guys in a direct wall, they relied on help defense, pinching wings, and smartly timed digs or traps to pressure the ball. By limiting the number of bodies committed to slowing Giannis down, the Celtics ensured they couldn’t be caught out by the ball swinging to the weak side or finding an unchecked cutter dashing through the lane.
If we look at this possession from the first quarter, we can get a good feel for how Boston looked to pressure Giannis when he got the rock in the half court. From the moment the entry pass is made, Derrick White ‘deep digs’ to rush Giannis’ decision-making process while also limiting his ability to turn and fade away due to how White’s body is positioned relative to Giannis’ hips.
Giannis has little choice but to kick the rock back out to the perimeter, where White then recovers from his dig to contest the shot, forcing Grayson Allen into attacking off the dribble before giving the rock back to Giannis for a 3-point jumper. Every team would be happy with Giannis shooting perimeter shots all night long.
Here’s another example of how Boston utilized digs to speed up Giannis and force him into jump shots rather than allowing him to attack off the dribble or work with his back to the basket as a low-post facilitator.
As Jayson Tatum chases Joe Ingles on his diagonal cut from weakside corner to strong side wing, Tatum leaves his man to momentarily apply pressure to Giannis’ dribble hand, forcing the crossover that leads to a short mid-range jumper. Granted the shot goes in, but again, whenever you force Giannis to shoot pull-ups, your defensive gameplan is having the desired effect.
Another way Boston looked to limit Giannis was by removing his route to the rim when he was operating off the ball, especially after a shot had gone up, thus limiting his ability to get putback buckets or initiate secondary chances for his teammates.
If you watch how Giannis shades his way into the paint as the shot goes up, it’s clear he’s looking to use his explosiveness to get to the rim and ram a thunderous putback home. However, Marcus Smart, who has been wildly impactful on defense in recent games (what else is new), sees Giannis’ intentions and gets underneath him early, limiting his ability to get into the restricted area while also ensuring if he jumps, it will likely be an over the back foul.
Smart has always been good at this, using his body to get underneath a taller player's hips and impact their range of motion and jumping ability while also being a pain in the butt due to his physicality and strength.
Beyond the X’s and O’s of how Boston looked to limit Giannis, they also went with multiple defenders from Al Horford to Grant Williams and even Blake Griffin, with a smidge of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, and Derrick White thrown in for good measure.
Quite frankly, when it comes to stopping Giannis, it takes a village. It just so happens that Boston’s village is more talented than most.
“We’re fortunate to have great matchups for him, you know, between Al, Grant, Blake, Malcolm, Smart — our whole team really. We’re fortunate to have the ability to throw some different guys at him, and I thought we were just disciplined in our execution,” Joe Mazzulla said.
However, as Milwaukee fans would be quick to tell you, the Celtics limited Giannis without the Bucks’ primary floor spacer, Khris Middleton being on the floor. So, perhaps once Middleton returns to the rotation, Giannis might have some additional lanes to attack. But, in reality, by having your wings pinch and multiple defenders willing to dig/stunt at the ball, you’re testing Giannis’ trust in his handle and forcing him into making quicker decisions.
Moreover, you putting the onus on the rest of Milwaukee’s roster to beat you, which is always possible but still unlikely, given Boston’s depth and defensive versatility throughout both their starting and bench unit.
After a shaky start to the season, the Celtics' defense is now up to 7th in the NBA, and given how well it’s looked in their last two outings, we could soon see that climb into the top-5 or even top-3. After all, this is essentially the same team that dominated the defensive ratings last season, and judging by what they showed against Milwaukee on Sunday, they’re starting to rediscover that identity, much to the frustration of Giannis.