As the Boston Celtics succumbed to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first game of their playoff series, we got our first look at how Ime Udoka is going to set his team up to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. For stretches, it looked like the size and strength of Al Horford and Grant Williams were going to hold up against the Bucks bulldozer, but then the double teams came.
Milwaukee’s roster is littered with high-level catch-and-shoot threats and they’re designed to punish you for overhelping onto their superstar forward. It’s a trap. Of course, those shooters are only a problem if you actually manage to limit Giannis on his forays into the paint, which isn’t the easiest of tasks.
Milwaukee knows what they’re doing, and often looks to force the defense's hand when the offense slows down in the half-court. For example, above, Robert Williams is matched up with Giannis, Horford is “two-nining” in the paint, and everyone else is staying home on shooters. A Brook Lopez cut towards the weakside dunker spot causes Al Horford to rotate over and remove the threat, which in turn encourages Marcus Smart to leave his man on the perimeter and help pressure Giannis in a trap scenario.
Open shooter, easy kick-out, three points.
Herein lies a primary issue when guarding the Giannis: you can’t overhelp, because if you do, Milwaukee will take advantage, and you’re left chasing shadows. However, it’s safe to say that as a unit, Boston did a great job of guarding, and limiting Giannis’ scoring ability. Shooting just 9-of-25 from the field is wildly uncharacteristic for the Athens native, and is a testament to how well the Celtics match up with such a transcendent physical specimen.
We have to credit Horford, who held Giannis to 20% shooting and forced three turnovers, and Grant Williams did a perfectly acceptable job when called upon too, limiting him to 50% shooting on 4-of-8.
There are not many players in the NBA who can withstand a shoulder to the chest from Giannis and still remain in a solid defensive position, but Horford is continually able to absorb the physicality and remain viable as a defensive weapon. You also have Robert Williams rotating over and contesting which adds further pressure, causing you to speed up your release.
Guarding Giannis straight up as we saw from Horford and Grant Williams is probably the best way to approach this series. But for a team that switches almost every action, honing in on your man and sticking with him in a 1-to-1 scenario likely feels counterintuitive. Perhaps that’s why the Celtics fell into the trap of sending doubles at Giannis in situations that didn’t necessarily require them.
Horford does a fantastic job of staying in front of the Bucks talisman here, making life hard for him on the way to the rim. A slight dig from Payton Pritchard does just enough to speed up the action and Derrick White pinching in off of Pat Connaughton’s cut means that Giannis sees bodies all around the rim. However, Grant Williams has been drawn into the paint, leaving Bobby Portis wide open on the perimeter, Giannis bails out of his shot, hits Portis, and boom: easy three.
When we talk about scoring gravity, Williams’ positioning on this possession explains it all. He was never going to affect the shot, nor was he part of the defensive structure to contain the drive, but he still finds himself sinking into the action and leaving Portis open.
“I think that in the first half, our rotations weren’t as sharp as they needed to be. We were a little slow as far as that. Sometimes, we’re going to go after him, sometimes based on who’s defending him and in what position, we’re going to let those guards take him straight up,” Ime Udoka said.
Portis, Grayson Allen, and Pat Connaughton all hovered around 40% from behind the arc this season and hit 7-of-17 combined in Game 1. It’s obviously a pick-your-poison decision for the Celtics, but one they aim to make better choices with in Game 2.
“I felt that especially when he’s looking straight at you, trying to bait you with the pass out of the double team, that we went too quick at times. Our rotations weren’t sharp and those guys rely on him to get open three-point shots. They had 6-for-11 catch-and-shoot three’s in the first half, and we gotta be better as far as that.”
When the Celtics played Giannis straight up, everything turned out rosy. Above, we can see Giannis and Horford going at it mano-a-mano, and while the ball still ends up around the rim, Horford has been left to deal with things himself, resulting in a difficult shot and a block to go with it. Notice where the rest of Boston’s defense is situated; they’re all within touching distance of the Bucks shooters, and can easily close out to contest or deter a shot should Giannis swing the rock.
Milwaukee isn’t really a team that will attack a defense with multiple drive-and-kick actions, nor will they run a ton of stuff on the elbow or baseline. Instead, the Bucks will bully the ball inside, force collapses, and then make the right read to an open shooter. Falling into the trap of doubling on Giannis is literally eating out of Mike Budenholzer’s hand.
The Celtics are known as one of the best defenses in the NBA due to their ability to switch actions and stay in front of their man, not for doubling scorers and living with the results, which means that if Boston wants to continue tasting success throughout the post-season, they need to double-down on what makes them so formidable. In effect, not doubling so much and trusting that their teammate can lock it down, even if we’re talking about Giannis Antetokounmpo.