The Celtics mortalized Kevin Durant. Their next task? Do the same to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Well, try to, anyway.
After sweeping the Nets in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs, the Celtics will take on the defending champion Bucks, a team led by arguably the best player in the NBA. A finalist for MVP this season, Antetokounmpo averaged a career-best 29.9 points to go along with 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He was dominant in the first round, scoring 30 points in three of the five games it took for the Bucks to outlast the Bulls.
While Antetokounmpo has reached a level where he is seemingly unstoppable, the Celtics were the best defensive team in the league this season and have the personnel to make him work for everything.
Can the Celtics do the impossible?
Who will defend Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Antetokounmpo played in three of Milwaukee’s four matchups with Boston this season, but there’s only so much you can take away from those games.
The Celtics limited Antetokounmpo to 20 points in the first game, but the team they were then is nothing close to the one they are today. The Celtics were down two of their better Antetokounmpo defenders in the second game, as both Al Horford and Grant Williams were in health and safety protocols at the time. They were even more short-handed in the third game, missing Horford, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams.
While the matchup data from those games is all over the place, it is notable that Grant Williams spent more time matched up with Antetokounmpo than anyone else on the Celtics. Horford wasn’t far behind despite facing Antetokounmpo only once, followed by Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
The numbers point to Antetokounmpo having a harder time scoring against Grant Williams and Horford, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
|Defender||Matchup minutes||Points allowed||FGM-FGA||FTM-FTA|
Assuming the Celtics roll out their normal starting five, Horford figures to draw the primary assignment on Antetokounmpo. When Horford isn’t on the court, Grant Williams will probably be tasked with chasing the two-time MVP around.
The Celtics do switch a lot, however, so we could see the likes of Brown, Tatum, Smart and Derrick White get a shot against Antetokounmpo throughout the series.
How do you stop a freight train?
The thing the Celtics have going for them is size. Nobody can stop Antetokounmpo one-on-one, but Horford and Grant Williams aren’t giving up much in the weight department, with Antetokounmpo listed as having only two pounds on Horford and six pounds on Grant Williams.
To put it simply, their jobs when defending Antetokounmpo will likely be twofold: 1) be physical and 2) keep him in front as best they can.
It helps that Horford has some experience defending Antetokounmpo on the big stage. Grant Williams doesn’t, but he’s become an incredibly versatile defender who seems to enjoy the challenge of stifling the league’s biggest stars.
They will, of course, both receive plenty of help whenever they’re defending Antetokounmpo. Robert Williams was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season on the strength of his rim protection. The Celtics weaponize his shot-blocking by having him guard the least threatening scorer on the opposing team, freeing him to roam the baseline as a help defender.
Only Nikola Jokic scored more total points in the paint than Antetokounmpo this season. Robert Williams, who averaged 2.2 blocks per game and held opponents to a stingy 51.9 percent shooting at the rim, will play a central role in making sure those points are as hard to come by as possible in this series.
Robert Williams could spend some time matched up directly with Antetokounmpo as well, but the Celtics will likely limit those minutes to prevent him from getting into foul trouble. (He didn’t foul as much this season, but he used to struggle to stay on the court.)
It would also take him away from what he does best because Antetokounmpo isn’t someone you can leave. If you do, well…
Everyone else on the Celtics will play an important role in building a wall around Antetokounmpo and throwing doubles at him to not only make him uncomfortable, but also take the ball out of his hands.
It’s safe to assume that Antetokounmpo will see multiple bodies standing in front of him whenever he makes a move toward the basket. (Smart is as disruptive of a wing help defender as you’ll find, and both Brown and Tatum can make life a living hell for opponents with their long arms.) No Khris Middleton for potentially the entire series is going to put a lot of pressure on Milwaukee’s shooters to knock down open looks.
Basically, the Celtics could use a similar blueprint as the one the Raptors did in 2019, but Antetokounmpo has improved quite a bit since then.
He is much more comfortable operating from floater range and midrange. His fadeaway jumper, which continues to get better, is a particularly important weapon against the timely doubles that used to give him trouble.
He has also grown tremendously as a passer. It doesn’t necessarily show in the numbers — his assists and turnovers have remained in the same range over the last four seasons — but there’s more zip to his dimes nowadays, and he has a lot more tricks in his bag.
Throwing the kitchen sink at Antetokounmpo isn’t nearly as effective as it once was.
Going up against this Celtics defense will be a good opportunity for Antetokounmpo to put all of those elements on full display.
Meanwhile, going up against Antetokounmpo will be a good opportunity for this Celtics defense to prove their masterclass against Durant in the first round was no fluke.