BOSTON — As the Celtics took a 20-point lead, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo tried posting Grant Williams but could get no closer than 18 feet from the rim. The game's best player dumped the ball to Jrue Holiday and tried to regain position against the 6-foot-6, 236-pound forward. He could not.
The first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals have arguably marked the two worst shooting performances of Antetokounmpo's season. Williams and Al Horford have defended Antetokounmpo so well that the Celtics stopped calling for double teams to limit the damage the two-time MVP did with his passing in Game 1. The plan paid off for Boston in a 109-86 victory that evened the series on its way to Milwaukee.
"We feel like we have the defensive guys to do it," said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. "Obviously, [Antetokounmpo] came out extra aggressive in the second half, but he scored 28 points on 27 shots. We defended well initially, and Grant's a big part of that. His versatility, he's like a mini Al out there. We ask him to do the same things. ... His versatility to switch onto guards and guard [Antetokounmpo] one-on-one in the post and be physical and frustrate him to some extent is what we need. So, we've got four guys we feel comfortable throwing at him. Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum] are bigger wings as well, so we can throw a lot of bodies, and that's one of Grant's main strengths, guarding guys like that — him and Al."
Antetokounmpo missed 16 of his 25 field-goal attempts in Game 1, but he drew enough defenders early in the shot clock to find teammates for 12 assists — eight of which resulted in 3-pointers. Boston watched the film and decided Williams and Horford could hold their own. The Celtics stayed home on Milwaukee's shooters in Game 2, only showing help late on Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks finished 3-for-18 from deep.
"I've seen it my whole career," Antetokounmpo said of Boston's physicality. "Tonight, the only thing might be, it's kind of tough to find your teammate, because the pass has got to be late, but that's pretty much it."
According to the NBA's tracking data, Williams and Horford have defended Antetokounmpo for a little more than 20 minutes through two games, holding him to 14-of-40 shooting (35%) and forcing seven turnovers. You'll recall Antetokounmpo shot 62% in last year's Finals. The NBA's most dominant rim finisher since Shaquille O'Neal cannot find the restricted area without a full head of steam in transition against the Celtics.
"I view it as guarding him on an island, where it's just you and him, and you have to do your job," said Williams, who scored a career-high 21 points in Game 2. "For us, that was how we viewed it for this game, to see how it would go, and he started being a lot more aggressive in the second half and getting downhill and creating for himself, but it's just one of those things where you just have to kind of hunker down and trust in the work that you've done and do your best to contain one of the best players in the world."
The Celtics dare Antetokounmpo to shoot from 3-point range, where he is 1 for 6 in the series, and they welcome anything outside 5 feet, where he is now 6 for 30 through the first two games. Boston also is not afraid to send him to the free-throw line, where he is 11 for 20, reminiscent of last year's playoff struggles.
The Celtics crowd even resurrected the mock count that followed Antetokounmpo's deliberate free-throw routine before he snapped out of his slump in Game 6 of last year's Finals. In that Boston crowd were a handful of fans sporting orange shirts with "Grant" scrawled across them — a salute to their unsung hero.
"That's kind of dope," said Williams. "I've never had that in my career."
The Bucks are confident Antetokounmpo will solve Boston's defense, like he has every other challenge in his career, if only because, as Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said, "He always figures things out."
"I try," said Antetokounmpo. "I try to figure it out."
Except, he has always had Khris Middleton to relieve the defensive pressure, and the three-time All-Star is still recovering from a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Meanwhile, the Celtics expect Marcus Smart — the Defensive Player of the Year — to return for Game 3 and shut off another release valve. Troubling news for a Bucks offense that now ranks last among the remaining teams in the playoffs (104.8 points per 100 possessions).
Antetokounmpo has to be at his best to win three more games against Boston, and he has been far from it. Likewise, Williams and the Celtics know what is coming for them on Saturday, and they are prepared for it.
"Guys like that, they approach basketball as if it's life dependent, and those are the ones you love playing against, because it brings more out of you," said Williams, referencing Antetokounmpo. "You've got to give them the respect they deserve, but we also know that we're competitive, and we're doing the same."
It's too early to call Williams and Horford the Giannis Stoppers, but they're one win closer to the title.
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