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How The Celtics Contained Giannis In Game 1

There were several big storylines in the NBA this past weekend as the second round of the playoffs commenced. But all things considered, only one outcome was truly surprising: The Boston Celtics, who have struggled to find consistency, pieced together a dominant showing on the road against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.

Even more impressive than what they did was how they did it: by neutralizing MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. By and large, Boston limited the Bucks’ star in transition, making sure he saw at least two or three defenders back — if not all five — each time he turned on the jets.

That strategy isn’t unusual to Antetokounmpo, who scored far more in the paint than anyone this past season while also ranking among the league’s leaders in fast-break scoring. But Boston’s synchronization was stellar at times, and the team looked fully prepared to challenge his countermoves when his first shot preference was taken away.

Take a closer look at this play, where Jayson Tatum sits, just waiting on Antetokounmpo to come left after Al Horford takes away Giannis’s ability to go straight up on the right. It ends up resulting in a block for Tatum, and then, when Antetokounmpo gets the ball back, a block for Horford. It pretty much summed up a day of frustration for the likely league MVP.

The final result: Giannis finished with 22 points, but more of his attempts from inside the paint were blocked (five) than went in. The interior-oriented Antetokounmpo shot just 27 percent (4-of-15) while in the paint, his worst shooting performance from there this season and the second-worst of his career (playoffs included),1 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Horford was sensational on defense, coming away with three blocks of his own (to go with 20 points and 11 rebounds), while backup big Aron Baynes was essentially just as effective. Combined, the two held Antetokounmpo to 2-of-10 shooting for just 9 points while guarding him, per ESPN Stats & Info. (Even when the Celtics fouled him, it generally worked OK, as Giannis shot just 5 of 10 at the line.)

Horford has enjoyed defensive success against Antetokounmpo before, but there were also indications that Boston’s defense would perform well against Milwaukee’s star. During the regular season, the Celtics’ transition defense held Giannis nearly 11 percentage points beneath his quantified Shot Quality2 while in transition — the biggest deficit of any team he faced all year, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. Put simply: No team made Antetokounmpo’s easy shots more difficult for him than Boston.

Horford’s size, strength and quickness give him the unique ability to contain Antetokounmpo without needing constant help each possession — something that would be risky given how well the Bucks shoot from outside. But during Game 1, Boston illustrated a willingness to let other players, and Giannis himself, shoot from outside if it meant aggressively sealing off Antetokounmpo’s paths to the basket.

The strategy to let Giannis shoot — rooted in his league-worst 3-point percentage when left wide-open3 — was actually Boston’s least successful gambit on Sunday afternoon, as he hit three of his five attempts from the perimeter. But the Bucks, the NBA’s most prolific club from deep aside from Houston, shot just 29 percent (10 of 34) from deep when excluding Antetokounmpo’s tries.

This isn’t to suggest that nothing went right for Milwaukee. Perhaps most noteworthy, and indicative of how Giannis-centric the Celtics’ game plan was: The Bucks went on a surprising 15-0 run without Antetokounmpo during a three-minute stretch in the middle of the second period. Beyond that, there are ways the Bucks can get Antetokounmpo going, rather than having him take on a preset wall each time he wants to get to the rim. Take this play, for example, which was highlighted by Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Giannis makes a simple handoff to wing Khris Middleton, who then tosses the ball back to Antetokounmpo, who’s already downhill and on the move as opposed to having to make something out of nothing. (The Bucks scored a staggering 1.24 points per time they ran this exact action during the season, per Second Spectrum.)

There are other things Milwaukee will need to address heading into Game 2. We mentioned that Boston’s perimeter shooting would be in prime position to take advantage of the Bucks’ drop scheme in screen-and-rolls, and that was the case during the first game of the series. And the Bucks can’t let Kyrie Irving continue to post near triple-doubles.

But while those things need to be addressed on defense, arguably nothing is more important than Milwaukee finding a way to get Antetokounmpo back on track for the rest of the series.

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  1. When setting a threshold of at least 10 shots attempted from the paint.

  2. qSQ measures the likelihood of a shot going in if taken by an average player. Antetokounmpo’s actual effective field-goal percentage in transition against the Celtics was 50 percent, down from the 60.9 percent an average player would have been expected to log. As a threshold, we only counted opponents Giannis took at least five transition shot attempts against this past season.

  3. Among those with 150 such attempts or more.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.