The Celtics found a way to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo through two games. Can their defensive clinic sustain? Plus: the Mavs have no answer for Phoenix’s offense.
The first two games between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been particularly pleasant to watch, but even the most arduous slogs can contain interesting strategic battles.
Boston’s defensive approach against Giannis Antetokounmpo qualifies as such, and will likely be the defining bellwether of the series.
How have the Boston Celtics slowed down Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The Celtics have looked comfortable leaving Al Horford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams on an island against Giannis, and all three have held their own surprisingly well. (Grant Williams in particular has been a defensive monster in the playoffs.) But forces of nature like Antetokounmpo can’t be contained with a single defender, and Boston’s help defense in Game 1 wasn’t up to par with its rightly-lauded first-round performance against Kevin Durant. Antetokounmpo started the series with a cutting dunk down the middle of the lane and seldom encountered strong help at the rim in Game 1. He smoked a few easy layups (by his standards), but late rotations are usually a death sentence against one of the strongest finishers in the NBA:
Meanwhile, the Celtics began the series helping too aggressively on the perimeter. When they swarmed his post-ups or isolations, Giannis found open teammates, and nine of his 12 assists in Game 1 were to spot-up 3-point shooters:
Boston cleaned up most of those miscues in Game 2. Antetokounmpo’s only field goals of the first half came on quick transition attacks, and the Celtics did a better job rotating early on his drives while staying home on shooters when he worked from the mid-range. Giannis occasionally burned that approach with quick baseline drives or mid-range shots, but the Celtics will live with semi-contested jumpers over point-blank layups. It’s in these moments that Milwaukee misses Khris Middleton most. As both an elite spot-up shooter and the team’s best perimeter shot creator, Middleton is crucial to the Bucks’ ability to balance the floor around Antetokounmpo; his absence not only allows Boston to help more freely on Giannis but forces him to act more as a ball-handler and less as a screener or roll man.
Without Middleton, Milwaukee must find easier ways to score, which makes the transition game one of the most important battlegrounds of the series. In Game 1, the Bucks dominated the smaller and less disciplined Celtics in transition, scoring a whopping 1.5 points per play while running on nearly a fifth of their possessions. Where the Celtics fumbled passes and turned the ball over, Milwaukee pushed the ball with urgency, hunting easy points before Boston could set its defense. Because Giannis puts so much pressure on the rim, the Celtics prioritized stopping him in the open floor, which gave the Bucks’ shooters wide-open kickout 3s:
Tuesday night was almost a mirror image of Game 1: the Celtics scored 1.5 points per possession in transition while holding Milwaukee under 0.8, and did a much better job getting back and limiting the Bucks’ chances in the open floor. That whittled away some of Giannis’ easiest scoring and playmaking chances, thus giving the Bucks fewer sources of reliable offense (it doesn’t help that Milwaukee went 3-of-18 from 3 while the Celtics shot 20-of-42).
The Bucks’ most reliable offense in Game 2 came at the rim, where they shot 22-of-28 despite Antetokounmpo’s first-half struggles. Shooting regression from both teams will make Game 3 more competitive than Tuesday’s lopsided affair, and Milwaukee eventually figured out ways to get Giannis cleaner looks in the second half — including isolating him on the left side of the floor (making it harder to help) and running actions to get him matched against Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum (who can’t handle his physicality):
These are the kinds of chess matches that make playoff series so much fun. The Bucks anticipated Boston’s first move, and the Celtics adjusted in Game 2. Now it’s Milwaukee’s turn to counter against one of the NBA’s best defenses, with every game becoming increasingly critical.
The Suns are punishing mismatches against the Mavericks
Perhaps the most fascinating overarching question going into the second-round matchup between the Suns and Mavericks was how effective Dallas’ small, five-out lineups could be against Phoenix’s more traditionally-sized units. In the first two games, conventionality won out over modernity, as the Suns’ two-way versatility overcame Dallas’ spread-out, small-ball approach. Whether in the post, on the offensive glass or in isolation, the Suns have relentlessly exploited mismatches in this series, leaving the Mavs playing Whack-A-Mole against Phoenix’s multifaceted offense.
Unlike the Utah Jazz, who struggled to contain the Mavs’ skilled, mobile big men, the Suns can exploit Dallas’ undersized lineups because of Deandre Ayton’s ability to reliably score on smaller defenders. Most modern NBA teams use the pick-and-roll as a means to create advantages for their guards — either by opening a lane to the basket or forcing a poor defender to switch onto the ball. Phoenix does plenty of that (Chris Paul is one of the league’s preeminent mismatch-hunters), but the Suns also make a concerted effort to find their centers in the paint. Phoenix is one of the most rim-averse teams in the NBA, but it knew Ayton would be able to feast at the rim in this series and made a point to establish him as a scorer early in Game 1. He made 12 of his first 15 shots of the series by aggressively carving out space against the Mavs’ centers and quickly making moves before help could arrive. Ayton has soft touch around the basket and from mid-range, and he’s developed a knack for getting behind the defense and making himself a target:
Barring a drastic adjustment from the Mavs, Ayton will get those looks all series long. His bullying of Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and Dorian Finney-Smith made Dallas hesitant to switch pick-and-rolls in Game 1, for fear of what Ayton might do against even smaller defenders. But that only allowed the Suns to put the Mavericks into rotation and create open shots with their ball movement.
In Game 2, Ayton (and seemingly every other player in the game) battled foul trouble, and the Mavs could more comfortably switch Phoenix’s pick-and-rolls with Bismack Biyombo on the floor. The Suns, in turn, began hunting mismatches on the perimeter, repeatedly using Luka Dončić’s man to screen for their guards, forcing a switch and letting Paul and Booker cook. Paul torched Dončić repeatedly in isolation, and even when Dallas didn’t switch or Paul didn’t directly score on him, Dončić’s inability to guard caused breakdowns elsewhere:
This is the challenge of defending a team as balanced and disciplined as Phoenix, and a player as crafty and calculating as Paul. Neutralize one threat, and the Suns find the next one. Stop the first action, and you’re out of position against the second. And, even against perfect defense, Paul and Booker might just make the shot anyway. Phoenix has also dominated the offensive and defensive glass in this series while barricading the rim on defense and has far fewer exploitable perimeter defenders than the Jazz did.
Unless Jason Kidd decides to dust off Boban Marjanović (who the Suns would attack mercilessly in pick-and-roll), Dallas might have to live with Ayton getting his paint touches, or employ sporadic double-teams to test his passing ability. Dončić will always cause problems on defense, particularly given the enormous offensive load he carries. Handing more creative responsibility to Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie could help juice the Mavs’ offense and conserve Dončić’s energy, but both Dinwiddie and Brunson have struggled mightily in this series. Dončić is good enough to almost single-handedly swing a game or two in Dallas’ favor, and the Mavs will play the next two games at home. But thus far they have been outmatched on both ends of the floor, and need to find some strategic remedy for the headaches Phoenix has caused them.