For Boston, the task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo has come with its struggles. During last year’s regular season battles, the Greek Freak averaged 33.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, and 5 apg. Only the Cavaliers allowed more points against him. In the playoffs, the story was no different, with Antetokounmpo averaging 25.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 6.3 apg in 40 minutes of action. Despite these gigantic numbers that Antetokounmpo is able to amass, the Celtics have found success against the Bucks, taking down Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in seven games. The results for Celtics are a blend of scheme in limiting the brilliance of the Bucks star.
Boston is littered with switchy wings and have lots of options to defend Antetokounmpo. In the team’s first match up this year on Thursday, Semi Ojeleye got the initial nod, but because of the Celtics switch-heavy scheme, all five guys end up having to defend him on any given possession. Due to Antetokounmpo’s lack of shooting, the Celtics made a decision within their scheme that they’ll live with what the Bucks star can create for himself as long as they stay home and don’t allow threes. Milwaukee knows this, and rather than simply giving the ball to Antetokounmpo and letting him try to figure it out, they mix off-ball action with him to force the Celtics into compromising mismatches.
The Giannis “pass and screen” is an effective counter to the switching defense because it allows the Bucks to headhunt the weakest defenders. Here, the Bucks used a simple dribble-handoff with Antetokounmpo cutting hard to the basket allowing him to establish favorable post position on Tatum.
Overall, Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and shot 59.1% from the field, yet when asked after the game, Stevens said that he felt that the Celtics did a good job on Antetokounmpo.
If you’re asking how in the world that’s possible, the answer lies in the team impact. Despite Antetokounmpo’s great counting numbers, the team finished with a -2.3 net rating when he was on the court, meaning the team was 2.3 points per 100 possession worse when he was on the court.
During the Bucks great 7-0 start, a dynamic part of the Bucks transformation was the teams three-point shooting and enhanced ball movement. Prior to the game, the Bucks led the league in wide open attempts at 26.1 FGA, which included 22.6 3PA. They were 2nd in the league in 3PA at 40.6 3PA and they were 4th in assists with 26.9 apg. Against Boston, the team took 29 3PA, had 20 assists, and only had 12 FGA that were characterized as wide open via NBA Stats.
And despite the Bucks’ transformation, Antetokounmpo has largely been the same. His game isn’t three-point oriented and he still makes his money within the mid-post and attacking the paint. That’s not an indictment. He turned himself into a top-10 superstar with this style and it has worked well with the Bucks overall ball movement and shooting around him. Boston’s counter and overall theme defensively has been to eliminate threes, and trust their players in isolation situations.
The result, as seen with the Bucks, is less ball movement, fewer open looks, and a larger reliance on self-creation which usually don’t lead to attempts from three. The flip side is that you open the door for a star like Antetokounmpo to amass big numbers and largely have his way, but in the long run, it takes away from increased ball movement, three-pointers, and an efficient shot profile.
The Celtics gave up a bit too much penetration which opened up the door for the Bucks to attain 30 FTA and 62 points in the paint on 54 drives which is way over their 41 drives and 21 FTA per game in their first seven contests. The game plan execution wasn’t flawless, but the probative value of Milwaukee’s success was substantially outweighed by the diminished shot profile the Celtics forced Milwaukee into.