Can Celtics defend Giannis as well as they did Kevin Durant? Grant Williams could be the secret weapon

the Celtics are built to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo. But what does that really mean? How do you defend the most unstoppable force in the game?

They have to learn from the last time they did that, in the first round of the playoffs. Boston needs to aggressively chip at, switch up into, and harass Antetokounmpo to make sure he can’t get to the position he wants.

It’s the same principle they used against Kevin Durant when he would start from the wings or baseline and would have to run through an “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course to get to the ball. Boston’s defense would throw everything at him from hip checks, forearm shoves, to an oil-covered rope swing hovering over a shark-infested pool.

Antetokounmpo requires a similar level of physical dedication from the whole group, but he is going to fight back more than Durant. While the Nets star was looking to get to his spot 15-feet out and pull up, Milwaukee’s man is going to keep barreling through until he gets what he wants. But the Celtics can fight fire with fire, or rather, fight barreling drives with barrel chests. That’s where Grant Williams you eat in.

“Two of the top players in the world right now,” said Williams of Antetokounmpo and Durant. “One of those people where (Antetokounmpo’s) dominating the ball a little bit more, especially with Khris (Middleton) out. So he’s going to make sure everyone else gets involved, but he also has to be aggressive himself. I think that for myself and Al (Horford) and guys like that, we just have to do a better job of understanding that this series is probably going to be a little more physical, just because of the dynamic of the team.”

Usually, in the playoffs, a defense has a main starter who matches up well on a superstar and then it’s the second unit that gets torched. Not Boston. Not Grant Williams.

He has emerged as one of the premier 3-and-D reserves in the league after his performance against Durant, as he showed he is putting together the whole defensive package as a pocket brick wall who can move with whoever is in front of him. But that shouldn’t have come as a shock for anyone who watched him go against Antetokounmpo this year. He’s been the perfect bench foil for someone who knows how to smash through an obstacle.

Williams has always had the power and balance to some degree, but he had to learn how to bang without fouling out. That’s changed this season and his performance against Durant made it clear he’s turned the page from being a foul-prone rookie hustling his way into the postseason rotation.

“I would go to the referees and say, ‘I’m gonna show you my hands at all times during the possession.’ So that way, all the physical bumps and all that stuff is done with my body, less so my hands kind of wrestling with them,” Williams told The Athletic. “So the biggest thing was just making sure that they understood that I wasn’t gonna foul him and everything he took was just physicality from heart, whether it was steering, whether I was pushing his catch out.”

There’s going to be a lot of squaring and posting up, where fighting for leverage and angles is going to be a grind. But Williams is finding a niche disrupting the plays before they even happen, with one turnover he forced on Durant in the last series being one of his proud moments of the postseason campaign.

“So there was one possession where, because the offensive player wants to get the advantage, they might hold you and stuff like that,” Williams said. “Then (Durant) was so concerned, one time, holding me, that he didn’t track the ball, he tried to catch it with one hand and it went out of bounds. That was just me trying to get him off his path, push him out, and not give him a feel of whether, like, I’m putting my right hand out there, next thing you (don’t) know exactly where I’ m gonna be or where you can go.”

But disrupting Antetokounmpo had become increasingly complicated since his MVP season. It would be easy if he went straight to post up and Boston could get everyone into the right positions to cut off his options from him, but Mike Budenholzer gets creative. He’ll get Antetokounmpo the ball above the play, then swing into a handoff with a shooter whom Boston can’t sag off.

So if the play starts with Grant Williams on him, it’s going to end with another big or wing. But rather than have him fight that switch to get to the high post, Milwaukee flashes bobby portis up from the dunker spot on the baseline to the nail on the free-throw line, pulling the backline rim protector out with him since he can shoot it.

That’s when Antetokounmpo can either get a deep post position or just go for the ping-ping alley-oop as he does on Sam Hauser here.

The question is whether Middleton being out forces Antetokounmpo to play more point guard instead of big. Middleton and Junior Holiday are the team’s primary pick-and-roll creators, with Antetokounmpo often the roll man. So where will Boston pick him up?

“Not to give too much of the game plan out, but KD, you pick him up a little bit higher on the 3-point line because you know he’s more of a threat shooting. With Giannis — depending on the player — myself, I’ve always been content and comfortable picking him inside the (3-point line),” Williams said. “When he gets momentum, he’s hard to stop, but strength-wise, I do a good job standing him up. I don’t have to pick him up as high as others. You gotta cut him off and keep him in front. But next thing you know, he might spin back. If he gets one step, he’ll finish through or over you.”

Coach Ime Udoka may surprise Milwaukee out the gate with high ball pressure on Antetokounmpo, trying to make him uncomfortable dribbling out in space and gambling for steals. Between Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smartand Derrick White, they have three players who are great at swarming and swatting at the ball and then getting out on the break — especially Brown. His high pressing into fast-break points was a big part of sweeping Brooklyn and it can help Boston keep their best defenders off Antetokounmpo until they switch onto him later in the possession.

“The thing with us is meeting him with some physicality, not let him get ahead of steam and get into the paint without being touched,” Udoka said. “Like your pick-up points and your contact points to be a little bit higher than — a lot of times these guys are touching him almost at the dots or the foul circle and it’s too late by that point. So show him that crowd, there’s some things we did well during the season against him that will have some carryover, but we understand the task at hand and how he scores and when to take that away from.”

So when someone like Brown picks him up on a switch, he can try to get into him 20-feet out and go for the ball since the weak-side wing is going to come for a late double when Antetokounmpo tries to spin out of it .

The Celtics should benefit from slowing things down in the half court, where they can get their angles right and get more aggressive poking at the ball. Watch how Brown can pull the chair on Antetokounmpo’s spin so he can knock the ball out, knowing Smart and Williams are locked into their help spots.

But Antetokounmpo can read those gambles over time and pass his way out of them as the series goes on. It’s one of the main reasons the bucks often start slow and seize control as they get to games five or six. Antetokounmpo has become so good at passing over the top of the defense that if you give him time to see what’s coming, he’s going to solve that puzzle quickly. The key is to get him to spin or step through one way, then surprise him with a second defender digging in to try to get a hand on the ball or in the passing window.

On post-ups, not only do they want to come in late so he can’t make the drop-off pass, but Boston doesn’t want Milwaukee’s bigs getting a head start on setting screens to protect the weak-side shooters or get box out position. Antetokounmpo and Holiday will burn teams on the offensive glass when they overhelp and then miss the box-outs on the recovery.

Whether he’s posted on the block or driving the lane, he will usually be able to pass over this to Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton wide-open in the corner. The center will usually be responsible for leaving his man under the hoop to go make a late hard closeout on the shooter, so another Celtic wing will then need to crash down to box that big man under the hoop from behind without fouling. It’s the same cycle repeated that Antetokounmpo necessitates when he can get on the move.

If Boston’s bigs get into foul trouble, things can slip quickly. Rob Williams was far from himself last week, so it’s hard to imagine he’s just back in a rhythm in Game 1. That means plenty of Daniel Theiswho had some rough moments in the last Milwaukee matchup three weeks ago when he was sluggish at the rim.

He was late to get to Antetokounmpo’s air space, would get blown by when he tried to go vertical on him at the restricted circle and didn’t have any pop to cut off driving angles. With Rob Williams still needing to shed the rust he showed in the Nets series, Theis should still be a part of the rotation early in this series and Milwaukee will target him.

They’re hoping he’ll have moments like in the third quarter on April 7 when he boxed out Connaughton then let the rebound go past him, didn’t rotate over to Antetokounmpo with deep post position on Derrick White, even with Smart calling for him to do it. Then a few plays later, Smart picked Antetokounmpo up on a switch, got posted up deep, and Theis barely even made it to the other side of the rim as Giannis dunked through Smart.

Theis looked like he was playing in mud that night and Milwaukee wants to live in there. Boston has shown they will switch on Antetokounmpo even when they don’t need to and that’s when their backline center needs to be proactive rotating over to help against post-ups. Boston is going to be a lot more reticent to send that center over to double against the Bucks, since they will either have someone like Portis in the dunker spot who can throw it down off the slip pass, or a shooter like Connaughton in the corner who can shoot over a closeout easily.

“In a sense, it’s similar to Brooklyn, but in a sense it’s different,” Smart said. “Where there was a lot more guys in Brooklyn we could help off of, this one, you gotta be cognizant of those shooters because they’re shooting the ball very well. He definitely has a team where we know and everybody in this league knows that they’ve been to the championship, they’ve won it, they’re hungry, they know what it takes, they know what it feels like, and we just gotta be ready for them.”

Boston’s personnel and scheme are ideal for Milwaukee’s half-court offense, but the challenge with Giannis is on the break. There are two schools of thought on corralling Antetokounmpo’s stampedes on the break. Form a line at the top of the arc to absorb his drive from him and bounce him back out, or start sending hands at him early to try to get him to gather the ball and make a decision at full speed. The former is safer, the latter has boom or bust potential.

If Boston’s corner shooters sprint back while Milwaukee gathers the defensive rebound, the riskier approach has upside. They can get back in time to turn to the play and then be in position to sink into the lane and recover to the shooter. But if they jog back, this is how it looks.

Williams was the culprit on that last play as he decided not to go back at all for whatever reason. The Celtics know the whole series hinges on discipline and stamina in transition. Antetokounmpo will not stop pushing the whole night and he can dance through a triple-team like it’s nothing. It’s not enough to put bodies in his way. They have to move with him.

Both teams are locked in now, especially after the Celtics had to take down two of the best scorers in the game last week. Horford believes they’re much sharper now after beating the Nets.

“Yeah. Don’t question. It just challenges you,” Horford said. “KD is one of the top players in our game. The way that we’re thinking and the edge that we need to have, we had it in the first round from the beginning; understanding that we couldn’t give anything less because if you did, we might not be in this position.”

(Photo: Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

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