The task of stopping a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo: has there ever been a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo? —represents a kind of collaborative quagmire.
You need a player who is both big, strong and agile enough to be in front of him. You need others, preferably long-armed men, harassing him with their hands from the periphery. Then you need someone to stand tall and protect the edge from the inevitable attack.
The Boston Celtics have all of those things. They showed it last week, in spectacular fashion, when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Nets were sucked into their quicksand defense. And, even then, it may not be enough.
On Sunday, Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 101-89 comprehensive victory at Boston in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup, quelling, for one night, the hype that simmered around the Celtics after his impressive four-game sweep of the Nets. .
In the process, by making one of the NBA’s best teams look normal for one night, the Bucks were also making a point: the national basketball conversation, that nebulous thing that floats across TV, social media and the columns. of the newspapers, can be inexplicably overlooked. times, but they are the defending champions and employ one of the most spectacular athletes in the world.
The league’s Most Valuable Player Award this year can 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 can draw fans’ attention to other big-market teams. But in the meantime, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are going about their business as one of the most formidable clubs in the league.
So for Antetokounmpo, this series represents an opportunity: What better way to burnish his towering reputation than against the most feared defense in the league?
“Keep reading the game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo, who overcame some early struggles to record a triple-double: 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “Sometimes it’s writing it down. Sometimes it’s sharing. He knows that he has to do both.”
The Celtics made a boisterous entrance onto the playoff stage last month with a bevy of long-limbed, athletic defenders working together in first-year coach Ime Udoka’s shifty, fast-paced, unnervingly aggressive defensive system.
Durant seemed puzzled by it all. After the series, he willingly sang the praises of Boston.
Durant and Antetokounmpo enjoy similar statures in the NBA. Both are 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 chisel.
If Sunday was any indication, the physicality of Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks’ roster could make a key difference between the first and second rounds for the Celtics.
When the Celtics tried to funnel Antetokounmpo back and forth, he just dodged them, a sports car swerving through traffic. If Boston’s defenders—big men, all of them—attempted more physical methods to throttle him, they bounced weakly off his body.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Celtics seemed, for once, to corner Antetokounmpo in a dead end. Looking around and realizing he was trapped: “I’m going to get trapped,” he said he told himself, knocking the ball off the backboard and catching it in the air again for a two-handed dunk over the head of Jayson Tatum.
“That’s pure talent, pure instinct,” Budenholzer said. “He is a great player. He does things that are unique, special and timely. That’s one of those plays where you’re glad he’s on our side.”
More important than the solo work of a superstar, however, and another potentially crucial difference between the circumstances of Durant and Antetokounmpo, were the contributions of the Milwaukee supporting cast.
The spotlight on Antetokounmpo has shone brighter in the absence of Khris Middleton, the team’s second-best player, whose participation in this series remains in question after injuring 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 draws a lot 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 jacket, a lot more of the Celtics’ focus could flow to Antetokounmpo, with the ball spending a lot more time in his hands.
But those who mourn Middleton’s absence may be overlooking the Bucks’ remaining cast of reliable satellite contributors, players capable of sinking a shot after a defense collapsed on Antetokounmpo.
Jrue Holiday, often celebrated for his defense but a formidable scorer when called upon, had 25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Grayson Allen led the Bucks’ reserves with 11 points, shooting 3-of-6 from 3-point range.
“I try to be as simple as possible,” Antetokounmpo said. “My teammates were there, they were wide open and they were knocking down shots.”
Still, all of these players, the entire Bucks universe — their offense, their defense, their collective mood and personality — revolves around Antetokounmpo.
How much fuel does it have to burn? He played almost a few seconds in the first quarter, took a short break early in the second and rested a bit in the third after an ill-advised fourth foul. Otherwise, he huffed and puffed through a 38-minute penalty, earning himself a reprieve at the end only because the game was clearly decided.
Then, he let out a long groan as he bent over in a chair to speak to the reporters.
“Maybe I’m weird,” Antetokounmpo said when asked if he felt mistreated. “I thrive through the physical. I love feeling beat up after games. I don’t know why My family thinks I’m a freak.”
For a Celtics defense still reeling from a steamroller, those can be ominous words.