As the Boston Celtics get set to take on the Milwaukee Bucks, stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo feels like the number-one priority, but with a player as dominant as Antetokounmpo, stopping him is rarely an option. The Greek Freak scored less than 20 points only seven times this season, and the Bucks still went 4-3 in those games. Sometimes, it’s more about slowing players down than stopping them.
Beating the Bucks is about more than just slowing down Antetokounmpo, though. Milwaukee has become a perennial championship contender because of the pieces they’ve put around the 27-year-old superstar. The fact that Khris Middleton will miss the entire series is a huge blow to their star power, but they still have plenty of guys ready to step up.
Boston will have to account for not only Antetokounmpo on the defensive end, but players like Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, and even Bobby Portis, too. Not having to gameplan for Middleton will make their life easier but stopping Milwaukee’s potent offensive attack will still be a big-time challenge.
Starting with the head of the snake, Antetokounmpo is a freak of nature. He averaged 28.6 points a night in Round 1, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. Luckily for the Celtics, they have better defenders and a better defensive scheme than the Chicago Bulls do. But Antetokounmpo is good enough to rip through any defense put in front of him. That being said, let’s take a look at what has and hasn’t worked against him in the past.
First and foremost, it’s all about personnel. Just look at the Bulls. Nikola Vucevic was too slow to stay in front of him, Javonte Green was too short to effectively guard him, Derrick Jones Jr. was too weak to body him up, and so on. Antetokounmpo knew this and took full advantage.
That won’t be the case for Boston. The Celtics have multiple players who can stick with Antetokounmpo. Al Horford is the first guy that comes to mind, followed by players like Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and even Marcus Smart. Not all of them are the perfect matchup, but they’re smart enough and maybe more importantly big enough on the defensive side of the ball to at least make Antetokounmpo think. In three games against the Celtics this season, he averaged 28.3 points on 53.4 percent shooting - a tad bit below his season averages. But the key to defending the Bucks isn’t slowing down Antetokounmpo. It’s everything around that.
When Antetokounmpo gets the ball in his hands, everything else opens up. He’s become such a dominant threat that it opens up opportunities for the rest of his teammates. Even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, opposing defenses have to worry about his every move. He’s always one move away from dunking over any player you put in front of him. This is where defensive gameplans come in. But again, as much as the Celtics would love to slow him down, it’s more about minimizing the damage that those around him cause.
The Giannis wall
First and foremost, let’s examine a defense that worked against the Bucks in the past - ‘the Giannis wall.’ In 2019, Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors broke out a defense that was solely focused on stopping Antetokounmpo. Essentially, it was a 1-2-2 zone, where the three defenders up top would collapse on Antetokounmpo, pressuring him to make a move, and more often than not, forcing a turnover or a bad shot.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, that was 2019. While Boston definitely has the personnel to pull that off, Antetokounmpo has improved so much that he no longer panics under pressure. And more importantly, he has better players to pass out to now. Instead of kicking the ball out to Eric Bledsoe and a young Pat Connaughton, he has lights-out shooters like Allen and Holiday (who has improved since his shooting woes last postseason). With all those weapons around him, Boston can’t really afford to single Antetokounmpo out in the same way that teams have in the past.
WillSoTrill Hoops made two great videos on these schemes against Antetokounmpo, so make sure to check those out for more information.
Let’s get crazy for a second. Obviously, when the Raptors famously ran the box-and-one against Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals, it made Nurse look like a genius. What if Udoka uses a similar strategy?
The first thought that comes to mind is that Horford could be a bit too slow to chase Antetokounmpo around all night. He seems to be the best option to guard him straight up, but if the matchup becomes a track meet, he could get gassed. Tatum could be the guy, but having him exert that much energy on the defensive end could be costly, even though he did just do it for the entirety of the Brooklyn Nets series.
Enter the Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart is only 6’3, but that’s never stopped him before. Throwing him on Antetokounmpo to pester him would allow the rest of the Celtics’ defense to worry about Milwaukee’s shooters. He could run around, draw offensive fouls, and make life difficult for the Greek Freak. And even when he managed to get by Smart, he would be met by Horford and Williams collapsing on him in the paint, which would allow Tatum, Brown, and Smart to get out in rotation and cover the shooters.
This type of defense isn’t one that the Celtics could get away with for long stretches. It’d be something to explore only when Antetokounmpo has the ball in his hands crossing halfcourt. Other than that, they should stick to the basics.
This is where the Celtics will shine. Their switch-everything, hard-nosed defensive style has propelled them to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Just because Antetokounmpo is on the other side of things doesn’t mean they need to change anything about what they’ve been doing. It just worked against Kevin Durant, so why not throw that same style of defense at Antetokounmpo?
Instead of Tatum guarding him, Horford is likely to be the primary defender on Antetokounmpo at the start of games, but past that, watch out for Grant Williams. He guarded Antetokounmpo more than any other Celtic this season, matching up with him for 10:15 minutes over the course of two games. He held Antetokounmpo to 4-of-10 shooting from the floor.
This play was too pretty to leave out.
Regardless of who covers Antetokounmpo, Udoka’s switch-everything defense should work wonders against Milwaukee. Everybody in Boston’s rotation (outside of Payton Pritchard) should feel comfortable sticking with Antetokounmpo for stretches, especially knowing that help defense is almost surely on the way.
Most importantly, this style of defense allows the Celtics to worry about Milwaukee’s other weapons. Horford, Tatum, Williams, and anyone else who the Celtics throw at Antetokounmpo is smart enough to stay in front of him, and even if they don’t, Robert Williams will be waiting down low with the help. This leaves perimeter defenders like Smart and Brown on the outside, ready to deal with shooters like Allen, Holiday, and Lopez.
Plus, Antetokounmpo’s shooting struggles allow the Celtics to focus on Milwaukee’s other threats. Here, that’s Middleton, but with him out for the foreseeable future, this could be anyone from Portis to Holiday to Allen, if need be.
The failsafe is sending help in the paint. This is exactly how the Celtics deal with Joel Embiid, and if Antetokounmpo catches the ball down low, employing the same tactic would be the obvious plan. It doesn’t matter who’s guarding Antetokounmpo in the post — the corner defender should provide help regardless.
Boston is one of the best defenses in the NBA for a reason. Brad Stevens has given Udoka a group of guys who can all guard anybody else in the NBA, and that allows them to switch everything, effectively cutting off Antetokounmpo’s chance at finding a mismatch. In turn, the rest of the Bucks won’t be given as much space to work as they had against, let’s say, the Bulls.
And let’s not sugarcoat things: Middleton’s absence is a killer for Milwaukee. Having an All-Star-caliber perimeter threat like Middleton on the outside who’s capable of creating for himself and others would be extremely helpful in breaking down Boston’s zone. But now, the Bucks are left with Antetokounmpo and Holiday as their primary ball-handlers. As great as those two are, dealing with two All-Stars is easier than dealing with three.
So as the Celtics attempt to halt Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo-led offense, as crazy as it sounds, they shouldn’t change anything. It worked against Durant, it’s worked against talented opponents all season, so why change it? Udoka is talented enough to make adjustments on the fly, but until he needs to, there’s no point in changing the best defensive scheme in the NBA.