When you force one of the most dominant players in basketball to be a -24 plus-minus in a Game 1 on their home floor, you’re doing something right. And that’s exactly what the Boston Celtics did to Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee during their 112-90 victory over the team.
Their defensive scheme goes by a few different names, but the “Giannis Wall” feels most appropriate. Whenever Antetokounmpo has the ball, the Celtics drop a center into the top of the paint while two wings sag off their assignments and cheat towards him. Every time down the floor, he faces a barrier of ultra-athletic defenders standing at 6’7 or taller.
— Michael Lynch (@LeicBasketball) April 28, 2019
If Giannis attacks the big guarding him, he is met by someone shading him towards a direction to make the center’s job easier as Antetokounmpo has less options available.
The 23-year-old phenom spoke to The Athletic’s Eric Nehm about this defense after Game 1 and said, “They were loading a lot… Whenever I got in the paint, when I spin or try to change direction, the second guy was right there.”
Boston’s Al Horford has been masterful in being the primary defender on Giannis. His size, strength, and nimble feet, combined with his wingers’ help, make him the perfect boogeyman for Antetokounmpo. Not only does he contest Giannis’s shots at the rim without fouling, but he rejects them too.
The Celtics took advantage of Milwaukee’s discombobulated star throughout the night. Kyrie Irving dropped in 26 points to go along with 11 assists and seven rebounds; Horford, along with his incredible defense, secured a triple double with 20 points, 11 boards, and 10 assists; Jaylen Brown capitalized with 19 on 8-for-14 shooting.
Still, it’s easy to view this Game 1 blowout as a fluke. After all, the Bucks came back on Tuesday to tie the series and give the Celtics a 21-point loss of their own, 123-102. But the final score doesn’t tell the whole story. Milwaukee did not convincingly break Boston’s wall.
Instead, the victory was more based on a hot third quarter. With about seven minutes to go in that period, the Bucks were up 74-71. Giannis still hadn’t gotten much going. The Celtics kept matching them. That is, until their offense went dry, they got frazzled, and began coughing the ball up.
More transition opportunities forced Boston to play with a backpedaling defense and gave a barreling Giannis his natural advantage. It also didn’t hurt that Irving had the worst playoff game of his career, scoring 9 points on 4-for-18 shooting, and Khris Middleton hit a playoff career-high seven 3-pointers.
The best, most simple way to get over the Wall is to attack in transition and kick to shooters the Celtics’ wings are sagging off of. With less guys back on the break, Boston can’t shade Giannis towards a side, and he forces the man back to guess which direction he’ll attack. By hitting shots in the Celtics’ faces, those wingers will be less inclined to cheat as heavily towards him.
But more often than not, a professional postseason scorer like Kyrie will steady his group with elite shot-making. More buckets means less defensive rebounds to run on and less anxiety-riddled turnovers. And while the Bucks are a good 3-point shooting team (35.3% during the regular season), their 20-for-47 rate (42.3%) in Game 2 will be difficult to duplicate.
Milwaukee should find more consistent actions to find space for Giannis in the halfcourt. During Tuesday’s halftime, TNT’s Charles Barkley was unrelenting in his calls for the Bucks to run a pick-and-roll rather than force Antetokounmpo to essentially play 1-on-5.
A simple pick-and-roll is a start. Milwaukee could also flip that idea: make Giannis the screener with a ball-handler like Eric Bledsoe hitting him on the roll. By doing this, Antetokounmpo can attack an off-balance matchup who may be forced to contain the guard – especially if Irving is the defender. They ran this motion a couple times and, although it didn’t always translate to buckets, they provided decent looks at the rim in a one-on-one.
The Bucks should also relentlessly attack Aron Baynes whenever he subs into Horford’s role. While Baynes is a more than capable substitute, he lacks the defensive touch that Horford does. Baynes doesn’t necessarily give up more field goals to Giannis, but he does foul more, giving the Greek Freak chances at the line.
Middleton and Bledsoe may be called upon to do more heavy-lifting than they expected, and the whole team will be counted on to knock down their triples. There’s a chance the Bucks lean into their five-out offense they’ve utilized all year to great effect and turn Giannis into even more facilitator than freight train.
This series is far from over, and Milwaukee should be anxious heading to Boston with the series tied. The Bucks are more than talented enough to take care of business and regain homecourt advantage. But without truly breaking the Giannis Wall, their margin for error feels slim for this season’s only 60-win team.