A Physical Bucks Team Makes the Celtics Suddenly Look Average
The task of stopping a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo — has there ever been a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo? — represents something of a collaborative quagmire.
You need a player at once big and strong and nimble enough to stay in front of him. You need others, preferably long-armed men, pestering him with their hands from the periphery. Then you need someone to stand tall and protect the rim from the inevitable onslaught.
The Boston Celtics have all of those things. They showed as much last week, in spectacular fashion, when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Nets were swallowed up in their quicksand defense. And, still, it may not be enough.
On Sunday, Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a comprehensive, 101-89 win at Boston in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, quieting, for a night, the hype bubbling around the Celtics after their impressive four-game sweep of the Nets.
In the process, in making one of the N.B.A.’s hottest teams look normal for a night, the Bucks were also making a point: The national basketball conversation — that nebulous thing that floats across television and social media and newspaper columns — may inexplicably overlook them at times, but they are the defending champions, and they employ one of the world’s most spectacular athletes.
The league’s Most Valuable Player Award this year may be seen as a two-man contest between Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. And soap operas and train wrecks may draw the focus of fans to other big-market teams. But all the while, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are going about their business as one of the most formidable clubs in the league.
For Antetokounmpo, then, this series represents an opportunity: How better to burnish your towering reputation than against the league’s most feared defense?
“He keeps reading the game,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo, who overcame some early struggles to register a triple double: 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “Sometimes it’s scoring it. Sometimes it’s sharing it. He knows he’s got to do both.”
The Celtics made a loud entrance onto the playoff stage last month with a flock of long-limbed, athletic defenders working together in the switching, scrambling, disorientingly aggressive defensive system of their first-year coach, Ime Udoka.
Durant seemed perplexed by it all. After the series, he willingly sang Boston’s praises.
Durant and Antetokounmpo enjoy similar statures in the N.B.A. They are both virtuoso artists. But they work in different mediums. If Durant is a painter with a palette of fine watercolors, Antetokounmpo is a sculptor wielding a mallet and a chisel.
If Sunday was any indication, the physicality of Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks’ roster could represent a key difference between the first and second rounds for the Celtics.
When the Celtics tried to funnel Antetokounmpo this way or that, he simply skipped around them, a sports car swerving through traffic. If Boston’s defenders — large men, all of them — tried more physical methods to throttle him, they bounced feebly off his body.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Celtics appeared, for once, to corral Antetokounmpo into a dead end. Looking around and realizing he was trapped — “I’m going to get stuck,” he said he told himself — he flipped the ball off the backboard and snatched it out of the air again for a two-handed dunk over Jayson Tatum’s head.
“That’s pure talent, pure instinct,” Budenholzer said. “He’s a great player. He does things that are unique and special and timely. That’s one of those plays where you’re just happy he’s on our side.”
More important than one superstar’s solo work, though — and another potentially crucial difference between the circumstances of Durant and Antetokounmpo — were the contributions of Milwaukee’s supporting cast.
The spotlight on Antetokounmpo has sizzled brighter in the absence of Khris Middleton, the team’s second-best player, whose participation in this series remains in doubt after he injured his left knee in Game 2 of the first round last month. A three-time All-Star who averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 assists per game in the regular season, Middleton commands plenty of attention with his ability to create his own shot and score in isolation.
With him watching the game from the bench in a navy blue jacket, so much more of the Celtics’ focus could flow toward Antetokounmpo, with the ball spending so much more time in his hands.
But those bemoaning Middleton’s absence may be overlooking the Bucks’ remaining cast of trustworthy satellite contributors, players capable of sinking a shot after a defense has collapsed on Antetokounmpo.
Jrue Holiday, celebrated often for his defense but a formidable scorer when called upon, chipped in 25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Grayson Allen led the Bucks’ reserves with 11 points, making three of six 3-point attempts.
“I try to be as simple as possible,” Antetokounmpo said. “My teammates were there, they were open and they were knocking down shots.”
Still, all of these players, the entirety of the Bucks’ universe — their offense, their defense, their collective mood and personality — revolves around Antetokounmpo.
How much fuel does he have to burn? He played all but a few seconds in the first quarter, took a short break at the start of the second and got some reluctant rest in the third after an ill-advised fourth foul. Otherwise, he huffed through 38 punishing minutes, earning respite at the end only because the game was clearly decided.
Afterward, he let out a long groan as he folded himself into a chair to talk to reporters.
“Maybe I’m weird,” Antetokounmpo said when asked whether he felt roughed up. “I thrive through physicality. I love feeling beat up after games. I don’t know why. My family thinks I’m a weirdo.”
For a Celtics defense still smarting from a steamrollering, these may be ominous words.