BOSTON – There’s a belief that the best player in a playoff series is the ultimate difference maker.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will be on some MVP ballots and could very well be a First Team All-NBA selection this year. But in Game 7 on Saturday, he couldn’t be the best player on the floor, because the best defense on the floor wouldn’t let him.
“I’m the best player on the court, both teams,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 7, a 112-96 loss for his Milwaukee Bucks at the hands of the Boston Celtics. “But from the start, the game plan was to stop me.”
The Celtics didn’t completely shut down Antetokounmpo in Game 7, but they held him in check. His line: 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting, with five assists. Not terrible, just not the numbers you’d expect from the best player on the floor in a Game 7.
The Celtics didn’t give him much space. Antetokounmpo was able to catch the ball the elbow in the Bucks’ offense, but when he faced up against Semi Ojeleye, Al Horford was always lingering a few feet away, willing to leave his own man open to help keep Antetokounmpo from getting to the basket. Horford was Antetokounmpo’s primary defender early in the series, but the Celtics turned to Ojeleye in Game 5, with Horford acting as the help man over the last three games.
“Their defense loaded up to [Antetokounmpo] quite a few times,” Bucks head coach Joe Prunty said. “Then it’s a decision. Can he make the play at the rim? Can he make the kick-out? I still think he was aggressive trying to make the right plays.”
“I thought the team effort on him was outstanding,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens added. “I thought [Ojeleye] was unbelievable, in these three games, defensively against Giannis. And then everybody else was just a little bit better than they’ve been against him, and made him earn everything.”
The Celtics didn’t give him space, and he didn’t force anything either. Maybe that’s what the Bucks needed, but maybe Antetokounmpo isn’t there yet in his development. Without a reliable jump shot – he had the third worst effective field goal percentage from outside the paint among 207 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from the outside this season – there’s a clear game plan for every team trying to defend him: Stay in front of him and make him a shooter.
And on Saturday, the other Bucks were unable to take advantage of the extra attention paid to their star. Antetokounmpo’s teammates shot just 10-for-31 from outside the paint.
“They were trying to make me uncomfortable all night,” Antetokounmpo said. “But it’s Game 7. You got to play through that. I was just trying to make plays.”
Khris Middleton capped an incredible shooting series (effective field goal percentage of 71 percent) with 17 points in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late, and Eric Bledsoe allowed Terry Rozier to get open too often on the other end of the floor.
The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving before the series started and lost Jaylen Brown at the end of the first half on Saturday. But they remained the resilient group they’ve been all season, led by Horford, who was a lot more than a help defender in Game 7. Indeed, he looked like the best player on this particular night, tying his career playoff high with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting and helping limit the Bucks to just four offensive rebounds.
More amazing was that Milwaukee was held to zero fast break points, two nights after registering 25 in Game 6. The Celtics’ ability to keep Antetokounmpo in check started in transition and it helped that Boston shot 54 percent and committed only four live ball turnovers. There just weren’t many opportunities for the Bucks to run.
Transition defense will continue to be a point of emphasis in the conference semifinals, where the Celtics will meet Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks, meanwhile, will begin the search for a coach who can get the most out of their star and his supporting cast.
Antetokounmpo will continue to put in the work. He’s come a long way since he was drafted in 2013, he’s still got a long way to go, and he’s just 23 years old.
“Giannis’ ceiling is tremendous and he’s getting better every day,” Prunty said. “That’s a scary thing for everybody in the league to think about.”
They just won’t have to think about it for another few months.