The Celtics present a complex defensive conundrum for Giannis, Bucks

Of Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA writer

BOSTON – There were many reasons for the Milwaukee Bucks they were able to finally break through last season. One was the decision to give Khris Middleton more responsibility in the midfield.

The goal was to make life a little easier for Giannis Antetokounmpo and make the Bucks attack more powerful. There would be less bulldozing from the top of the key. There would be more chances of catching the ball in motion and closer to the basket. The Bucks would lean on Antetokounmpo’s strengths. In doing so, they would have added some variety to an attack that had been short in the previous playoff series.

The good news for the Bucks is that the strategy worked. The bad news is that, thanks to an MCL strain that will keep Middleton out for the entire second round, the Bucks can’t rely on their current game against the Boston Celtics.

Instead, they returned to rely on Antetokounmpo’s bullying thrusts and isolation shots. Against most teams, this wouldn’t be a problem. The problem for the Bucks is that they are now facing a Celtics team that finished the regular season with the league’s top defense and appear to be better equipped to defend Antetokounmpo than any other opponent they have faced in his career.

No away team that steals one of the first two games of a series can go home in a panic. But after the Celtics won the match 109-86 in Game 2 on Tuesday night, it’s fair to say the Bucks should be worried.

In two games, the Celtics held Giannis at 20 of 52 shots (39%). More telling is how they derailed the entire Bucks attack, keeping them at an anemic 81.3 points per 100 possessions.

How bad is it? The Orlando Magic had the league’s worst midfield attack during the regular season, averaging 104.7.

How were the Celtics able to limit the two-time MVP?

“We have four guys that we feel comfortable throwing at them,” said Celtics manager Ime Udoka after Game 2.

Four might be a bit exaggerated – it depends on how you define “throwing at” – but in Al Horford and Grant Williams they definitely have two.

Williams, in particular, was brilliant in Game 2. You wouldn’t think of a 6ft 6ft tweener as a Giannis stopper, but Williams ‘strength and low base keep him from being the turnstile that so many Giannis’ front. Combine this with his strength, nimble feet, and expert instinct, and you have a player who can annoy Giannis in a way that few can, as demonstrated by Giannis who spent the first half of the game throwing awkward fadeaways and jumpers. .

“His versatility to be able to switch guards and guard (Giannis) one-on-one on the post and be physical and frustrate him to some degree is what we need with such a player,” Williams Udoka said. after the match . “That’s one of Grant’s main strengths is protecting guys like that.”

What might be more impressive, however, is that the Celtics seemed to be expecting this kind of performance. That’s why, Udoka said after the win, the Celtics came into the game by talking about “protecting a little more one-on-one”.

“We feel like we have the defense and the guys to do it.”

This allowed the Celtics to stay at home on the Bucks shooters and keep them just 3 for 18 from depth, a steep drop from the 38.4 they attempted per match in the regular season, the league’s fifth-highest score.

This is where the Bucks felt – and will continue to feel – Middleton’s absence. Jrue Holiday is a fantastic all-round player, but he doesn’t have Middleton’s ability to generate shots or pull out a defense.

The Celtics were also able to neutralize the Holiday-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll by putting Williams on Holiday and Horford on Antetokounmpo and simply turning on the screen. There may not be another team in the league with two great players capable of guarding Horford and Holiday. It’s what makes the Celtics unique, from the literal definition of the word.

For his part, Antetokounmpo after the game said everything you’d expect: “It doesn’t really change my (approach). I’ve seen it pretty much my entire career.”

He added that his plan was, “Go home, eat something, I don’t know, watch some Netflix, Hulu, HBO, whatever. Play with my kids, take some shots, practice, watch movies and get ready for game 3. We know what the deal is. “

None of this means that the Bucks are doomed. They were able to win a title last year despite a clumsy midfield offense, mainly by choking opponents and generating points during the transition. They can be better in both areas in the future. For example, they only recorded six counterattack points in Game 2, having accumulated 28 points in Game 1, a trend they could likely reverse if they can force some Celtics to fail, especially from deep.

But right now, it seems the Celtics figured out how to slow down Giannis and stop the Bucks from taking 3. After Game 2, Bucks manager Mike Budenholzer said he wasn’t worried about Antetokounmpo because he “always understood things”.

It may be, but he has never had to solve this kind of puzzle before.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of “Climbing to the top: the Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest trial in the history of professional sports. “Follow him on Twitter @Yaron Weitzman.

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