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BOSTON – Game planning for an unstoppable force like Giannis Antetokounmpo is a pick-your-poison scenario. If you focus too much on containing him in one area, he’ll likely destroy you in another.
The Boston Celtics opted for an ultra-aggressive approach when guarding the Greek Freak in Game 1 Sunday afternoon. While it worked in some ways, it hurt them in others, which means they’ll have some defensive adjustments to make heading into Game 2 Tuesday night.
The good that came out of Boston’s Game 1 defense was that it limited Antetokounmpo to a 9-of-25 shooting clip from the field, which was by far the least-efficient effort of his playoff career when attempting that many shots. But in applying such persistent help defense, the C’s opened a window for him to be a facilitator, which led him to a 24-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist triple-double and the Bucks to a 101-89 win at TD Garden.
“Those great players that command the double team, you want to pick your poison at times,” head coach Ime Udoka reflected between Games 1 and 2. “I think we helped unnecessarily at times when we had some good matchups on him. If he's going to shoot a fadeaway jump shot, we'll live with that shot. I think we rotated there, and our rotations weren't sharp.”
Antetokounmpo’s monster first half included 14 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. He did most of his damage facing up and kicking out to his teammates for wide-open threes – they shot 6-of-11 on such shots in the first half – which helped the Bucks take a 56-46 lead into the break.
“Sometimes we're going to go after him,” said Udoka, “sometimes, based on who's defending him and what position, we want to let those guys guard straight up, especially when he's looking right at you kind of try to bait you, pass out of that double team.”
The Celtics guarded him more straight-up in the second half when he was doing less driving and kicking and more backing down in the post. He was less effective in the final 24 minutes, tallying 10 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but the Bucks still had a two-point advantage during that time.
Heading into Game 2, Grant Williams says the Celtics need to do a better job of understanding when and where to provide help defense on Antetokounmpo.
“You have to do a good job of playing him solid, keeping him in front, and making sure you get out to the shooters because all of those guys do that extremely well,” Williams said at Tuesday morning’s shootaround in Brighton. “We have to do a great job on who we’re guarding, when and when not to help, and who’s guarding them because some guys do better than others.”
There are some defenders that need less help guarding Antetokounmpo than others. For example, Al Horford limited the two-time MVP to a 2-of-10 shooting effort in 27.2 defensive possessions. Boston’s 35-year-old vet also did a stellar job in their lone matchup of the regular season on Dec. 13 when he held Antetokounmpo to eight points on 36 possessions.
“Al is an elite defender in that sense,” said Williams. “He's a guy that when you see who he's matched up on, you can do a little less help and that's something we can identify when you're in a bad spot versus when you have somebody contained. That's just a matter of adjusting. Game 1 of a series, you gotta see how the other team's gonna play. You have to see how you're gonna play against the other team. So now it's about making those Game 2 adjustments and adapting and making sure that when we see certain things happening, we do a better job of approaching it from our front.”
The key to defending Antetokounmpo in Game 2 is striking a better balance: knowing when to provide help and knowing when to take him one-on-one.
“He's obviously a great player, so it’s making sure that we do a good job of continuing to contain him,” said Horford. “Defensively, we just have to be much sharper as a group. And I think we will be tonight.”