This question is right in my wheelhouse. For years, I’ve advocated for putting a smaller guy on Giannis to undercut his dribble, then if he gets separation start to run at him with a bigger, longer body. So the idea we’d use is to steal the strategy from the Toronto Raptors just a few years ago called “blocks and elbows”. Essentially, we’d advocate for putting Marcus Smart, or Payton Pritchard even, on Giannis and then stationing the other four defenders on the blocks and elbows — it’s not a “box and one” defense, but it loads up aggressively in help to discourage Giannis drives and turn him into a passer:
Grayson Allen’s on the Bucks, so no one will be tripping Giannis. The best way to slow him down is to annoy him like crazy, just like the Celtics did to Kevin Durant. I don’t think a box-and-one makes too much sense, because the Bucks have so many elite shooters. A triangle-and-two doesn’t really work, either. I think the formula is getting in his face, making him a half-court player as much as possible and taking charges to get him in foul trouble. Maybe line five guys up at the free-throw line and all fall down at the same time? He’s the best player in the NBA, so it won’t be easy, but the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone to make him overthink (see: Kevin Durant).
Kevin Durant and Giannis are different beasts, but I loved the Celtics strategy on Durant. Specifically, if Boston can push and move Giannis every possession like they did to Durant, it could wear down Giannis and try to tire him out every trip down the floor. Bumping him, redirecting him, borderline fouling him every possession will put a lot of pressure on him, and hopefully force some mistakes. Luckily, this team has many defensive irritants, from Smart to Grant to White.
I’m not going to propose anything wildly inappropriate, but I do think the Celtics are uniquely equipped to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo compared to other teams. Teams often try to play off Giannis, but they rare have the size to meet him at the rim, because he’ll take the space to get a head-of-steam going. Boston can meet him at the rim with Al Horford, Rob Williams or even Daniel Theis, with long-armed defenders like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown coming in to help. Also, these are the kinds of matchups Grant Williams is perfect for. Is he shutting Giannis down? Nope. But Grant can make him work. And that will be key in the series.
The best approach to defending Giannis would be to build a time machine, go back to the 2013 NBA Draft, and pick him instead of Kelly Olynyk. If that’s not possible, then the Celtics can rotate their cadre of bigs onto Giannis to present different looks and spread out fouls. They must also focus on avoiding live-ball turnovers where Giannis and the Bucks can attack before Boston sets up its half-court defense.
The truth is, there’s really no stopping Milwaukee’s 6-foot-11 monster. He averaged 29.9 points in the regular season, getting to the line 11.4 times per game (second only to Joel Embiid’s 11.8). In the Bulls series, Giannis upped that to 12 free throws per contest. Since the Celtics have the league’s best defense, perhaps that reputation will allow them to guard Giannis without drawing excessive whistles. Perhaps not.
Most important is preventing other Bucks from doing damage. Milwaukee shot 36.6% (fifth in the league) from downtown this season, while the Celtics held opponents to a league-low 33.9% on threes. To take the series, the Celtics must win this battle, regardless of what happens with Giannis.
Maybe this is a crazy take, but my creative idea for defending Giannis is nothing. Don’t do anything special. You know how the Celtics threw double-team after double-team at Durant last series? Yeah, don’t do that. Giannis isn’t a guy who can kill you from the perimeter. He does his work on the interior. Stick Al Horford and/or Grant Williams on Giannis and have Robert Williams ready to play help defense from the corner like he always does. That’s it. Boston felt like they could get away with doubling Durant because they would live with players like Bruce Brown and Blake Griffin taking threes. Double-teaming Giannis will leave guys like Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis, and Wesley Matthews open for three. Not ideal. Historically speaking, the Celtics have defended Giannis extremely well, and that’s thanks to the play of guys like Horford and the Williamses. Don’t get creative now. Just do the same thing.
For anybody that listens to the podcast, they’ll be aware of how big a Mighty Ducks fan I am, and I think Udoka could take a leaf out of Gordon Bombay’s book by running an inverted Flying V defense. Have Williams in the Center, with guards in the middle and wings at the top. Then every body punches as Giannis continues his drive.
Alternatively, why not try the Johnny Cash defense - throw a ring of fire around Ginnis and force his to give up the rock or foul as he charges through a bunch of big bodies
It’s not particularly creative, but if more standard approaches aren’t working I’d just shift to a “put Marcus Smart on him and see what happens” strategy. Giannis is a superhuman, but Smart is a maniac willing to get run over repeatedly if it will help his team. He’s had success drawing charges and swiping down for steals on Antetokounmpo’s forays to the rim in the past. Asking him contend with such a size disadvantage for an entire series isn’t fair, but it’s worth keeping in the mix of potential strategies.
How hard would it be to sneak a sixth defender out there on some crucial possessions, do you think?
But seriously, at the risk of tempting fate, I think the Celtics are about as well-positioned to defend Giannis as any team could be, especially with Robert Williams back on the court (with some valuable rest time after the Nets sweep, to boot). With the Bucks missing a wing scorer of Khris Middleton’s caliber, the pool of players Ime Udoka can throw at him widens even further. For that reason, I think I’m with Jack here. Don’t throw extra attention at Giannis (at least, not all the time) and trust his defenders to stick to their man with Williams lurking in help defense, and instead focus on preventing the Bucks from getting hot from behind the three-point arc.