MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks teammates are eager to get going in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as bottled up as they’ve felt in waiting six days between playoff games.
A perfect offensive start to Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against Boston would look something like Giannis grabbing the basketball, racing downcourt with one of his breathtaking, three-dribble, end-to-end run-outs and attacking the rim with the ferocity and scowl with which he’s played all season.
Perfect, that is, until Jaylen Brown slides over to plant himself between Antetokounmpo and the restricted area. Whoops! Pancaked Jaylen gets the whistle, while chastened Giannis picks up his first foul and turnover of the Sunday matinee.
It’s a strategy out of judo or jiu-jitsu, using your opponent’s power and aggression to your advantage, and it’s one the Celtics likely will deploy against the Bucks’ star and Kia MVP candidate.
Are the Celtics ready for the Greek Freak?
Getting between Antetokounmpo and the rim isn’t the most comfortable way to defend the against the Greek Freak’s drives into the lane, his maddening Euro Step and his ability to reach up, over and beyond with arms fit for a crane. He’s all elbows and knees, muscles and bones, and at 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds, he’s been giving as much physical punishment as he takes this season. A defender has to absorb that and then sell the move, too, falling backward to the floor. No fun.
But it might be one of the few effective ways to slow – if not stop – Antetokounmpo on a Bucks possession, with the added benefits of killing momentum, planting some doubt and ticking up his personal fouls count closer toward an all-critical sixth.
Brown and Celtics teammate Terry Rozier both suggested Antetokounmpo could be slowed by such a maneuver. Celtics coach Brad Stevens, in a conference call with reporters Saturday, wasn’t so sure.
“The bottom line is, if you go downhill with the force and speed that he does, there are going to be moments where he charges,” Stevens said. “There also are moments where he draws blocking fouls and scores ‘and-ones.’ He does that a lot more than he charges.
“So you’d better not let him get that head of steam very often.”
Antetokounmpo’s 2018-19 highlight reel has been ample.
Easier said than done. Antetokounmpo has become one of the most ferocious rim attackers in the league. He was seemingly unstoppable inside this season, shooting 72.6 percent from five feet or less per NBA.com stats. With 583 field goals from that range, Antetokounmpo had nearly 100 more than the league’s No. 2, Detroit center Andre Drummond (486).
Oh, and counting the games against the Pistons in the first round, Antetokounmpo has successfully dunked the ball 289 times – 119 of which have come without assists, meaning either put-backs or throwdowns in which he brought the ball in there with him.
Here’s where the 24-year-old’s attack mode can be used against him: He also committed 68 offensive fouls this season – tied for most in the NBA with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Certainly he got fouled with the ball way more than he fouled – Antetokounmpo shot 686 free throws, second only to James Harden’s 858. Nearly seven of his 27.7 points per game came from the line.
But foul trouble can slow Antetokounmpo’s roll, as with anybody. If it’s early enough or severe enough, it can take him off the floor completely, and for long stretches. At the least, it might make him a bit less assertive, a wee more passive the next time he might otherwise barrel downcourt.
“I definitely keep it in my mind,” Antetokounmpo said Friday, asked about the charge/block challenge he might face against the Celtics. “It’s not just them. A lot of teams try to stop me by taking charges.
“But that’s the fun part about it. They’re not thinking about how they’re going to defend me; they’re thinking about how they’re going to try to take charges. If I can be under control and be at my own pace and try to be smart with not taking charges, if I get to my spot it’s going to be tough.”
Here’s a breakdown of Antetokounmpo’s impact with and without nagging foul concerns:
In the 31 games in which he was called for four fouls or more (including two disqualifications with six), the Bucks star averaged 25.7 points and eight times logged fewer than 30 minutes. Milwaukee’s record: 23-8 (.742).
In the 41 games Antetokounmpo finished with three fouls or fewer, he averaged 29.2 points. He played at least 30 minutes in 34 of the 41, and the Bucks went 33-8 (.805).
Boston has defenders willing to give up their bodies, including three of the NBA’s top 20 in charges drawn: Aron Baynes (18), Marcus Smart (15) and Kyrie Irving (13). Smart, still out with a left oblique tear, won’t play in at least the first two games of the series.
The Starters wonder if the Celtics will “dust off” Semi Ojeleye to help guard Giannis.
But Semi Ojeleye is a physical forward who drew Antetokounmpo as an assignment at times in the three regular season meetings – he started twice – and took three charges this season. In the three games, Antetokounmpo was called for a total of seven fouls, including three charges. (For the record, Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova led the NBA in that defensive category with 50, despite playing only 1,231 minutes in 67 games.)
Several Celtics will try standing in or stepping in, depending how the referees call it, against Antetokounmpo. It will take timing, footwork, physical sacrifice … and some good fortune.
“It’s one of those things that’s easier said than done,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer. “Luckily for us, it’s nothing that he hasn’t seen or nothing new.”
Said Stevens: “The No. 1 thing [Giannis] has always been is exceptional downhill, exceptional in transition. And when I say ‘exceptional’ I mean one of very few to ever have played the game.
“I just think, ultimately, you have to be able to move your feet. You have to be able to guard with pride. You have to be able to do all that, but nobody can do that by themselves against him.”
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