The Boston Celtics won’t admit – at least not in the middle of a competitive playoff series with a title in mind – they are star stoppers.
But look at what they did to Kevin Durant in the first round: 26.3 points per game on 38.6% shooting from the field and 33.3% on 3-pointers, all below his regular season averages.
Now, look at what they’re doing to two-time Milwaukee Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo: 26 points per game, 38.5% shooting from the field and 16.7% on 3s, well below his regular season averages.
“Guys are going to score their points, it’s moreso the percentages we’re keeping him to (and) limiting his paint points basically,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s Game 3 in Milwaukee.
How is Boston doing this?
To start, the Celtics had the No. 1 defense in the league this season, led by 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart.
Slowing stars is not an anomaly for Boston. The Celtics did the same during the regular season to MVP frontrunners Nikola Jokic of Denver in two games (23.0 points, 39.5% shooting) and Joel Embiid of Philadelphia in four games (24.5 points, 39.7% shooting). Both players were held below their scoring and shooting averages.
Against the Nets, Boston knocked Durant all over the court with multiple defenders, size, strength and double-teams.
Against the Bucks, Boston can’t use that same physicality because of Antetokounmpo’s size and strength and his ability to absorb contact and finish at the rim. But they have found a way to make offense difficult for him.
Antetokounmpo has scored in this series but not an efficient rate – 20-for-52 from the field, 1-for-6 on 3s and 11-for-20 from the free throw line with 11 turnovers. During the regular season, he shot 69.6% on shots at or near the rim. It’s 51.7% in this series from the same range.
It has forced Antetokounmpo into more of a playmaker role with 19 assists. But Boston will take that tradeoff and will live with someone other than Antetokounmpo beating them with their scoring, especially with Khris Middleton (sprained left knee) sidelined.
The Celtics have defended him mainly with one-on-one coverage (and help when necessary) led by Al Horford. They have contested his shots in the paint, let him shoot open 3s and have tried to keep him away from the basket as much as possible.
Through two games, Antetokounmpo is 6-for-22 shooting with Horford as the primary defender and 4-for-10 with Grant Williams as the primary defender. The Celtics have other quality defenders, too, including center Robert Williams III, even with Smart missing Game 2.
Horford has used his feet and his wily old-man game to slow Antetokounmpo, and Williams’ upper-body strength has forced Antetokounmpo into tough shots.
I re-watched every one of Antetokounmpo’s attempts in this series. On one of Antetokounmpo’s drives, he tried bully-balling through Williams only to bounce off Williams and miss a falling-backwards shot.
The Celtics have also made a solid effort to get back in transition and prevent Antetokounmpo from gaining speed on drives to the basket. They have blocked his shot four times.
Antetokounmpo has also missed shots at the rim that he has made before. A couple of those start to fall and that opens up other scoring chances for the Bucks who without question have spent the past two days looking for ways to put Antetokounmpo and his teammates in better offensive opportunities. They found some of that with Antetokounmpo cutting to the basket and in pick-and-roll situations.
“You can’t give a player like him a steady diet of anything,” Smart said. “He’s too good of a player for that. We’ve just got to continue to switch it up. Whenever you’re on him, you do everything you can to make every shot he (takes) tough.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.