Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates Celtics defense as Boston searches for answers

BOSTON – It felt like it was forever since the Celtics pulled together a few straight stops. The Celtics were trying to push ahead with the run to close the gap in the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t take off.

So after Al Horford was forced to skip the Jrue Holiday, the moment seemed to finally arrive as Giannis Antetokounmpo kept trying to drive through Grant Williams and kept bouncing off a brick wall.

Williams has been fighting him relentlessly throughout the afternoon, but you can never completely shut down Antetokounmpo. You can just grab him before he finally hacks it.

So while Williams continued to take hit after hit and stand tall, Antetokounmpo had to dig deep into his bag. He faked like he was going to fade, knocked Williams out, and then somehow slipped down the Celtics big squad. He’s been out of control and out of basketball to achieve one of his longest-running Monstar championships. The play seemed to be over, so Jason Tatum watched the ball fly off the backboard and waited for it to fall into his hands.

Like a Greek whim that would allow this to happen.

“He made a great play,” Tatum said after Milwaukee took the first game with a 101-89 victory. “We have to be more solid, stay on their fakes, stay between the player and the basketball, and not give them a wide open lane and things like that.”

What was very strange at this moment was that it seemed to shock the Celtics with their stupor. Williams had a few consecutive stopping points on Antetokounmpo and Boston started the transition and swing the ball for an open three. But as the Milwaukee defense was crowding them out and covering the backside of every game even as the Celtics started to score, Boston lost that advantage.

They had been taking Antetokounmpo out just long enough to try to get away, but they couldn’t take advantage of anything before he stitched the moment back in with force.

This time, Williams didn’t even protest that Antitokonmo grabbed him from behind. They knew what it was. Milwaukee punched them over and over. This was TKO.

Odoka saw enough, clearing the bench as fans emptied the field two minutes before the end of the match. After watching the Player of the Year at last year’s Finals tear up everything his league-leading defense threw, Odoka was able to see the defending champions rule the day. There was no need to pull it out any further. This is what Antetokounmpo does for you. He makes you feel like there’s nothing you can do once he gets what he wants.

When Antetokounmpo would pull defenders into corners in the post-following, Boston would usually send in the assist. It worked against Brooklyn as Kevin Durant had even more trouble grinding into the position and was kicking short bowlers. But Antetokounmpo can hold out long enough to make a pass because the assist escapes the shooter or when he pulls the duo out of center completely. He then began facing bigger bowlers at Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis.

“When you pass the ball to them, they don’t hesitate,” Antetokonmo said. “I know if I pass a pass to Grayson right into the pocket, the ball goes up.”

In the first half, Antetokounmpo was mostly playing in a standoff against Horford and sometimes Rob Williams. This gave the Bucks star more options to drive or pass and gain speed when hitting the first defender. So Boston had to play a bit of a 2-3 zone the way they would dump an assistant defender away from the shooter.

One hitch that worked really well was getting Portis to spin across the fairway to try to force that loose double team and get the Celtics to blow a switch. Jaylen Brown misses Jayson Tatum and Portis passes to him, Portis opens under the ledge and Rob Williams has to drop Connaughton into the corner to stop Portis.

When Horford left on an island in the first half, Antetokounmpo was one step ahead, back up the fairway and coming to the edge with ease. There was nothing consistently working against the player pressing buttons more than anyone else in the game.

“The first half, our cycles weren’t as sharp as they should be. We were a little slow,” Odoka said. “Sometimes we catch up. Sometimes, depending on who’s defending him and the location, we want to let these guys guard straight, especially when he’s looking right at you and trying to seduce you, and he’s overlooked by that double-team. We went too fast at times. He’s looking at us and our rotation wasn’t sharp.”

Antetokounmpo was clearly unaffected by what Boston threw, and is a far cry from Kevin Durant in the last round. A big difference between Milwaukee and Brooklyn is that Antetokounmpo shoots out to much longer shooters. Allen is perhaps his shortest ejection option, and Allen was not phased out by any liquidation that came his way.

Milwaukee was 6 to 11 at 3 seconds to catch and shoot in the first inning. Antetokounmpo scored or assisted on 55 of the 87 Bucks he scored while on the floor. Even when Horford or Grant Williams stopped him in one-on-one coverage, he’d come out for a jacket or hit Dirk Nowitzki’s fade. He always had the right answer.

“Those great players who lead the double team, you want to pick up your poison sometimes,” Odoka said. “I think we helped unnecessarily at times when we had some good encounters with him. If he was going to shoot a lackluster jump shot, we would live with that shot. I think we took turns there, and our laps weren’t as sharp.”

The question is how Boston can toughen its game plan for Tuesday. The wall and splinter that threw Durant in the first round didn’t do much for Milwaukee. It’s so exhausting to do that against Antetokounmpo all night long.

The loose doubles didn’t do much to deter him from driving, as he could go ahead with the moves to beat defenders into position and avoid a trap. Then he can lift and pass the top of the defense.

Boston would try to double it hard towards the baseline, but they either had to send in help from the close shooter or from the weak side angle. He was finding these shooters so reliable that Odoka had to give them up.

It’s rare to see a Celtics coach unable to solve a mystery in one night, but they’ve gone from facing a team last week who admitted he was trying to figure himself out to a team whose identity is engraved on the Larry O’Brien Cup.

“It’s the playoffs. This is not the time to be surprised,” Brown said. “They are the defending champions and we should go out and play basketball. You have to be ready to go, no matter the injuries, or whatever we’re dealing with. You have to get everyone connected, mentally locked in, and ready to leave everything on the ground. This is what it comes down to. Who will leave it all there? We will be that most difficult team, we just have to keep our focus.”

This focus should continue throughout the night. The Bucks’ second effort continued at a rough time as Boston was still trying to find a way to stop Antetokounmpo. Perhaps their last shot to get back into the game came when Marcus Smart thrust Antetokumpo into the Horford-Grant Williams trap, then Williams again closed in front of Portes to prevent him from taking 3. Anyway, Brown couldn’t keep playing Allen.

Tatum’s constant frustration sums it all up. They went far in this play and did it well, but the Bucks ran across the finish line. Now they have to leave this behind. They have been controlling matches with their physical ability and effort for months and have become one of the best teams in the league because of it. They have learned how to move forward from repeated failures and have a short memory. Can they prevent these habits from returning once they finally encounter a worthy opponent?

“It’s just one match. You can go ahead,” Brown said. “Definitely I have to see the movie, understand what we did wrong and go out and be better than it. But one game does not earn you a streak. We know it’s being played, and we now know we’re at the end. We cannot lose our faith, we cannot lose our resilience or our confidence. Come on now and play Celtic basketball.”

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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