Apparently, there was a memo sent to everyone across the NBA landscape that detailed a fantasy-style plot for this postseason, one that mandated that any current or eventual opponent of the Boston Celtics simply must employ a monster-unicorn amalgam. First came Kevin Durant, the slender wizard whose shots have been
The Celtics’ defense — as powerful as King Arthur, it seems — slew the initial dragon. And after taking the initial beating from the second, this knight’s cavalry appears to have developed a method for stopping the second, too.
It involves nary a spell nor a sword, that method, but instead, a Grant and an Al. It seems the Celtics have found a way to temper their Giannis Antetokounmpo problem, if not solve it. While no one, not even the bravest of Warriors, will ever be able to contain the Greek Freak, as he is commonly known in medieval lore, deterring him is a more welcome journey for those brave enough to risk the terrain. In their second-round series’ first bout, Giannis did his opponents in, dropping a triple-double and involving his teammates at a lethal level. But in the second game — and in the eyes of the Celtics, in every game moving forward — the plan shifted. This shapeshifting Boston defense found yet another avatar to take on: that of the Giannis stopper.
With every quarter on Tuesday, Giannis was relatively all over the map. He shot one-for-seven in the first, one-for-five in the second, and outlying eight-for-11 in the third (where he scored the bulk of his points on the day, 18), and just one-for-four in the fourth. His two-for-12 showing for five points in the first half is the worst shooting percentage (16.7 percent) Antetokounmpo has ever put up in a single half when taking more than 10 shots. In full, he ended his day a shoddy 11-for-27 from the field, finishing with a ho-hum 28 points, but requiring the boom he experienced in the third period for his box score to come remotely close to brushing shoulders with his typical all-world numbers.
Giannis was eventually going to get his no matter what; the third quarter was his time to do so. But for the majority of the afternoon, Boston managed to keep Antetokounmpo off-balance and unsettled, especially any time he attempted to lumber his way into the paint. He was nine-for-15 inside the restricted area but shot 0-for-six from all other zones in or around the paint. Those 12 total misses on the interior were caused by a physical, pointed Celtics defense, one that clearly came into Game 2 with one principal goal in mind: make life hell for the two-time MVP should he dareth enter the paint.
No, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn these Celtics are not. They’d positively be jailed on assault charges were they to try anything even remotely close to what those two maniacs were willing to do to the opposition back in the late-80s. But they were far more liberal risking fouls by making necessary contact in Game 2. Perhaps they realized that allowing a seven-foot gargantuan-slash-dexterous point-forward hybrid to glide to the rim with the ease of a steaming knife through butter wasn’t exactly part of a winning formula. You can almost hear Ime Udoka screaming a Mortal Kombat-esque “FINISH HIM” from the sidelines; on the other side, you can most certainly hear Mike Budenholzer curdling with fear.
Al Horford and Grant Williams served as Boston’s anti-Giannis task force in Game 2, and showed exactly what can happen when you put your mind (and body) to going muscle for muscle with the most-muscled dude in the league. Antetokounmpo shot more when defended by Horford (making just four of his 12 attempts in that matchup), but that was largely because the strength Williams (who kept Giannis to two-for-six) was surprisingly stout, and forced Giannis into less-than-preferable leaners, or contested shot attempts through contact. For the series, Horford and Williams have held Antetokounmpo to a combined 14-for-40, per NBA Advanced Stats matchup data. (Is that bad? It’s not good.)
“I view it as guarding on an island,” Williams said after the game. “It’s just you and him and you have to do your job.”
The Celtics took that approach a bit too seriously in Game 1, falling on the sword of the “just you and him” idea by neglecting the other aspects of their defensive duties as a team. Despite having Horford and Grant Williams to use against Giannis in man-to-man sets, Boston was still so eager to take his offense away that they seemed to forget about the others entirely. Sending extra bodies at Antetokounmpo allowed (not forced) him to dole out 12 assists. The Bucks made 12 threes for the game, seven of them coming off assists from Giannis.
But in Game 2, the Celtics shifted their priorities. Udoka placed some added trust in his best defenders to play Giannis well enough one-on-one and enlisted the other four players on the floor with the task of making sure Milwaukee’s others didn’t get anything easy on the perimeter. Sure enough, the Bucks shot three-of-18 from three (17 percent), their worst three-point shooting performance of the season in both volume and percentage.
“You gotta give their defenders credit,” Budenholzer said of Boston’s defense against his star in Game 2. “The guys on him, they’re solid, good defenders and then quite a bit of help. And that’s where he’s got to see it and feel it. And do we kick it and get more 3s? Or he’s gotta finish against one-on-one defense? I think it’s a little bit of both.”
It’s worth noting that Giannis still managed seven assists on the night, but none of them found teammates on the perimeter. All seven went to teammates inside the arc. He also had six turnovers, tied for the third-most he’s ever recorded in a playoff game. When he wasn’t being forced into errant drives and long twos, he was tossing ill-advised passes and/or losing the ball in a wave of green.
“We talked about guarding him a little more one-on-one,” Udoka said of Boston’s defensive approach. “We feel like we have the defensive guys to do it. Obviously, he came out extra aggressive in the second half scoring 28 on 27 shots. We were defending well initially, and Grant’s a big part of that. So, we got four guys we feel comfortable throwing at him. Jaylen and Jayson are bigger wings as well so we can throw a lot of bodies, and that’s one of Grant’s many strengths is trying guys like that, him and Al.”
As a whole, Boston was better in transition, too, both against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. In Game 1, the Celtics allowed 28 fastbreak points, with Giannis scoring or assisting on 13 of them. In Game 2, the Bucks scored just six points on the break; Giannis scored two and assisted on zero.
If you’re desperate to find a downside to all of this, look no further than the facts before you: this man is arguably the greatest player in the world and a two-time NBA MVP, one who borders on winning the scoring title year after year and has the next two games on his homecourt. He’s likely to respond just as he has when challenged in the past, especially in the postseason, where he tends to reach levels of play that we commoners previously deemed unattainable. He’s averaging 26 points, 11 boards, and 9.5 assists in two games against the Celtics, numbers that would warrant him an MVP case in the regular season — much like the one he has this season, the one that people were eager to boost after his dominant day in Game 1 of this series. His coach isn’t worried in the slightest; “Giannis, he always figures things out,” Budenholzer said.
But Antetokounmpo’s high-scoring outings have not been highly efficient. Giannis is now 20-of-52 in this series, with the bulk of his shots coming in the paint, a place Boston proved capable of not letting him work his way into in Game 2. He’s three-of-19 from deep in seven games this entire postseason; the Celtics will let him let it fly from there all day long. Sure, the idea that Giannis will “get his” will absolutely persist. But Boston now looks like a team that knows how to make his job — and in turn, that of his teammates — a bit harder.
Most dragons end up slain in the end. Why not this one, too?