The trend for the Milwaukee Bucks this season has been that they have gone as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo could take them. It comes with little surprise that they lost Game 1 against the Boston Celtics given that he failed to play at his regular MVP level.
The cause for The Greek Freak struggling wasn’t just a simple case of a player having a bad game. Brad Stevens and the Celtics came out with a tremendous game plan to slow down Antetokounmpo, and it worked beautifully. He ended the night with 22 points on 7-of-21 shooting from the field and handed out just two assists.
“He’s such a great player, and I think our focus was to make sure that we made it tough on him every time,” Al Horford said. “All of our guys at different times were on him at different times and involved in the play, and we just made sure he earned everything that he got and I felt we did a good job of that.”
"Our focus was to make sure that we made it tough on him every time."
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 28, 2019
The defensive strategy to contain Antetokounmpo began primarily with not allowing him to get clean finishes in the paint. Al Horford frequently was in a strong position to pressure finish attempts as a rim protector within the half court and in transition. These are sequences that Giannis is accustomed to being able to use size and athleticism:
Only once did Antetokounmpo manage to convert on an attempt in the paint when Horford was on the court, and it was on a transition possession. Horford was crashing the offensive glass and Giannis was able to leak out and get ahead of the defense enough to gain perfect positioning for a post seal. These opportunities will not happen often:
There was a concerted effort by the Celtics to use positioning to force Giannis to settle for jump shots. They accomplished that goal by having the on-ball defense sag off him and by having the team defense form a crowd to prevent him from being able to physically impose his will. He was able to shoot 3-of-5 from deep, but it didn’t end up mattering because he went 4-of-15 in the paint and 5-of-10 on free throws:
Before the series began, Stevens stated that his Celtics team is going to have to prevent Giannis from being able to get downhill and use his incredible athletic tools. They were able to execute their strategy almost flawlessly and, that’s why it was so difficult for the superstar who shot 72.6% from five feet or less during the regular season to be able to find success near the basket:
“The bottom line is, if you go downhill with the force and speed that he does, there are going to be moments where he charges,” Stevens said. “There also are moments where he draws blocking fouls and scores ‘and-ones.’ He does that a lot more than he charges.
“So you’d better not let him get that head of steam very often.”
If Giannis is going to continue to be very aggressive as a playmaker, he is going to have to favor passing the ball to the open man when he is driving toward the basket and be prepared to make decisions quickly. The advantage that opened up the Bucks’ offense this season has been having shooting at every position around their superstar, and they need to find ways to take advantage of those options one again.
What made it so complicated for Antetokounmpo to find the open man at times was that Boston would use great positioning with its team defense to prevent easy passing lanes. They used extra ball pressure to take away the usual pass that Giannis makes to the corner while being in position to get out to the wings and above the break:
This was some great positioning by the Celtics' defense! pic.twitter.com/hUUgix1qJi
— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) April 28, 2019
The Bucks’ coaching staff needs to come out with a better game plan to combat the opposition’s defensive strategy. Their half-court offense was far too stagnant, which allowed the Celtics to key in on Giannis much easier. They will need to start moving without the basketball more to prevent the team defense from being able to take away multiple spot-up options with one defender.
It would probably be a good idea for the Bucks to use Giannis more as an off-ball offensive option and experiment with that. Perhaps he could make quick passing decisions as a roll man in the pick-and-roll because of the gravity that he commands from the defense. The Bucks are going to review Game 1 and come back with adjustments for Game 2:
“Giannis, as great as he’s been this year, he hasn’t been perfect every night,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s hard on himself, so I’m probably just going to put my arms around him and tell him, ‘You’re going to be great.’ He’s been so good so many nights and, again, credit to Boston. They’re doing some things well, but I think Giannis will play better and we’ll work and look at some things before Tuesday. I’m sure he’s looking forward to Tuesday just like we are.”
"I think Giannis will play better."
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 28, 2019
The talk heading into this series was about how Boston as going to focus on sliding its feet and having good positioning to take charges against Antetokounmpo. It seems like Milwaukee was expecting to be able to use its usual offensive strategy heading into this matchup because teams have tried a lot of different methods to slow down their MVP candidate:
“It’s one of those things that’s easier said than done,” Budenholzer said. “Luckily for us, it’s nothing that he hasn’t seen or nothing new.”
Aside from adjustments, Milwaukee will need supporting cast players like Eric Bledsoe to shoulder more of a scoring load with how Boston is neutralizing Antetokounmpo. Bledsoe scored only six points in Game 1 while shooting 1-of-5 from the field with only a single attempt from inside the arc.
Using Bledsoe more as a playmaker would force Kyrie Irving to work harder on defense as opposed to letting him use that end of the floor to rest. The Bucks need someone who can break down the defense off the dribble and find shooters out on the perimeter, and their starting point guard is the best candidate for that particular role.
It will not be easy for the Bucks to win a chess match against the Celtics, because that is an area where Stevens almost always has an advantage. Milwaukee will need to overcome that in Game 2. Otherwise, having to travel to Boston facing an 0-2 series deficit would be highly problematic for the Bucks’ chances of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.