By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
BOSTON — There were many reasons the Milwaukee Bucks were able to finally break through last season. One was the decision to give Khris Middleton more responsibility in the half court.
The goal was to make life a bit easier for Giannis Antetokounmpo — and make the Bucks’ offense more potent. There’d be less bulldozing from the top of the key. There’d be more catching the ball on the move and closer to the hoop. The Bucks would be leaning into Antetokounmpo’s strengths. In doing so, they’d add some variety to an attack that in previous playoff runs had come up short.
The good news for the Bucks is that the strategy worked. The bad news is that, thanks to an MCL strain that will keep Middleton out for the entire second round, it’s not one the Bucks can lean on in their current matchup against the Boston Celtics.
Instead, they’re back to relying on Antetokounmpo’s bully-ball drives and isolation strikes. Against most teams, this wouldn’t be a problem. The problem for the Bucks is that they’re now facing a Celtics team that finished the regular season with the league’s top defense and appears to be more equipped to defend Antetokounmpo than any opponent he’s faced in his career.
No road team that steals one of a series’ first two games can return home in a panic. But following the Celtics’ wire-to-wire, series-evening 109-86 Game 2 win Tuesday night, it’s fair to say the Bucks should be concerned.
Through two games, the Celtics have held Giannis to 20-for-52 shooting (39%). More telling is how they’ve derailed the Bucks’ entire attack, holding them to an anemic 81.3 points per 100 possessions.
Just how bad is that? The Orlando Magic had the league’s worst half court offense during the regular season, and they averaged 104.7.
How have the Celtics been able to limit the two-time MVP?
“We got four guys that we feel comfortable throwing at him,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said after Game 2.
Four might be a bit of a stretch — it depends how you define “throw at” — but in Al Horford and Grant Williams they certainly have two.
Williams, in particular, was brilliant in Game 2. You wouldn’t think of a 6-foot-6 tweener as a Giannis stopper, but Williams’ strength and low base prevents him from being the turnstile that so many facing Giannis become. Combine that with his strength, nimble feet and savvy instincts, and you have a player who can bother Giannis in a way few can, as evidenced by Giannis spending the first half of the game chucking up awkward fadeaways and jumpers.
“His versatility to be able to switch onto guards and guard (Giannis) one-on-one in the post and be physical and frustrate him to some extent is what we need with a player like that,” Udoka said of Williams after the game. “That’s one of Grant’s main strengths is guarding guys like that.”
What might be most impressive, though, is that the Celtics seemed to expect this sort of performance. It’s why, Udoka said after the win, the Celtics entered the game talking about “guarding a little bit more one-on-one.”
“We feel like we have the defense and the guys to do it.”
That allowed the Celtics to stay home on the Bucks shooters and hold them to just 3-for-18 from deep, a steep drop from the 38.4 they attempted per game in the regular season, the league’s fifth-highest mark.
This is where the Bucks have felt — and will continue to feel — Middleton’s absence. Jrue Holiday is a fantastic all-around player, but he doesn’t have Middleton’s ability to generate shots or draw out a defense.
The Celtics were also able to neuter Holiday-Antetokounmpo pick-and-rolls by slotting Williams onto Holiday and Horford onto Antetokounmpo and simply switching on the screen. There might not be another team in the league with two big players capable of guarding Horford and Holiday. It’s what makes the Celtics unique, by the literal definition of the word.
For his part, Antetokounmpo after the game said everything you’d expect: “It doesn’t really change my (approach). I’ve seen it pretty much my whole career.”
He added that his plan was to, “Go home, eat something, I don’t know, watch some Netflix, Hulu, HBO, whatever. Play with my kids, get some shots up, practice, watch film and get ready for Game 3. We know what the deal is.”
None of this means the Bucks are doomed. They were able to win a title last year despite a clunky half court offense, mostly by suffocating opponents and generating points in transition. They can be better in both those areas going forward. For example, they registered just six fast break points in Game 2, after racking up 28 in Game 1, a trend they can likely reverse if they can force some more Celtics misses, especially from deep.
But right now, it looks like the Celtics have figured out how to both slow Giannis and prevent the Bucks from jacking 3s. After Game 2, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said he wasn’t worried about Antetokounmpo because “he always figures things out.”
That may be, but he’s never had to solve this type of puzzle before.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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