Something very unusual happened in the final minutes of a regular-season game between Milwaukee and Brooklyn this season. Kevin Durant drove into the lane and rose up for a jumper, like he has a million times before. It’s his trademark move—getting to one of his preferred spots on the floor and elevating over defenders who can do nothing to alter his shot. That ability is why he’s one of the most unstoppable scorers in NBA history. But his defender this time was different. Giannis Antetokounmpo rose with Durant—and blocked his shot:
There might not be anyone else in the league who can do that. Durant, essentially a 7-foot guard with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, towers over perimeter players and is too fast for big men. But Giannis, like Durant, is one of one. He’s just as tall as him, and just as fast and long.
Durant has always had a size and speed advantage in the playoffs. The second-round series between the Bucks and Nets, tipping off Saturday, is the first time that he will have to beat someone just like him. There’s never been a matchup quite like it. It’s something out of a Don Nelson fever dream. Durant and Giannis might as well be aliens from the vantage point of where the game was just 20 years ago.
Each 7-footer dominated their first-round series in their own way. Durant did it with offense; Giannis with defense. The two series were clinics in the value of length in the playoffs. Jayson Tatum (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) and Jimmy Butler (6-foot-7 and 230 pounds) are two of the biggest wings in the NBA in their own right. But neither had an answer for an opposing star who towered over them. Tatum vs. Butler was the heavyweight battle of last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Now it looks more like an undercard.
There are a million factors that go into who wins a series. But it often comes down to which team’s best player can get buckets easier. The more pressure that player can put on the defense, the more it opens things up for everyone else. It’s not necessarily about a one-on-one matchup, even when two stars play the same position. The fluid nature of offense in the modern NBA means that defensive assignments get shuffled over the course of a possession, much less a game. The key is the overall scoring matchup between the two stars. Who can score more consistently and efficiently game after game after game?
Durant vs. Tatum in Round 1
Consistency is what separates Durant from even great scorers like Tatum. The series went from a slaughter in the first two games in Brooklyn to a shootout in the next two in Boston once Tatum got going. But there can be no off nights against Durant. Tatum went for 90 points combined in games 3 and 4 and still averaged only four more points than KD. That’s how high the bar is.
As for Giannis, the difference between 2021, when the Bucks swept the Heat, and 2020, when the Heat knocked them off in five games, started with how he and Butler performed in each series.
Giannis vs. Butler, 2021 and 2020
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer finally had Giannis defend the best scorer on the opposing team in a playoff series, an adjustment three years in the making. Per NBA Advanced Stats, Giannis was the primary defender on Butler for 78.3 possessions in 2021 after being the primary for only 9.9 in 2020. Butler had his way with Milwaukee in the bubble, blowing through Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe while Giannis watched from the other side of the floor. The same thing happened in 2019, when Kawhi Leonard carved the Bucks up in the Eastern Conference finals. The old saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Budenholzer saw the light in 2021 and seemed to say, “Even I can’t be fooled a third time.”
Butler had no answer for Giannis, who used his length to swallow him up anytime that he went into the lane. Giannis would go under screens for Butler, knowing that he didn’t want to shoot off the dribble, and meet him on the other side. It was the same strategy that Anthony Davis used so effectively against him in the 2020 NBA Finals. Butler shot 3-of-12 in the series with Giannis on him. The most telling number is the limited number of attempts. There was simply nothing Butler could do. The player who exploded for 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting in Game 1 of their second-round series last season was gone.
Defense is the side of the ball where the comparisons between Giannis and LeBron James make the most sense. What Giannis did to Butler was his version of what LeBron did to Derrick Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. It’s what separates Giannis, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, from the other great defenders around the league. Rudy Gobert, who won the award in 2018 and 2019 and is the favorite to win it again in 2021, has better advanced numbers. But they are ultimately less important than Antetokounmpo’s versatility. He can guard players at all five positions. The Bucks can put Giannis on the top player on the opposing team, regardless of position. It’s their ace in the hole in every series.
The problem is that Giannis is about to go up against another ace. Shutting down Butler and Durant are two completely different tasks. Durant hasn’t played against someone like Giannis in the playoffs, but Giannis hasn’t faced someone like him either. Butler is a good scorer who had one great playoff run. Durant has been carving up great teams in the playoffs his entire career. No one has ever been able to slow him down.
Durant has appeared in 26 full playoff series across 10 postseasons—not counting three he briefly appeared in due to injury—and outscored the leading scorer on the opposing team in 19 of them. He has outdueled everyone from LeBron to Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Tim Duncan. The seven times when he has been outscored have mostly been because his opponent has taken more shots and been less efficient, like when Kobe averaged 31.2 points on 42.6 percent shooting (compared to 26.8 on 51.6 percent for KD) in a second-round matchup in 2012. Only twice has someone scored more than Durant while shooting a higher percentage: Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 Western Conference finals and LeBron in the 2018 NBA Finals.
The consistency is mind-boggling. Durant never averaged fewer than 24 points in any of those 26 series. And he has always been able to raise his offensive output when he has needed to. It’s not like he played poorly against Dirk in 2011 or LeBron in 2018. He averaged 28.0 points on 43 percent shooting in the former and 28.8 points on 52.6 percent in the latter. Those guys had to play at a Hall of Fame level to win their matchup with him.
Scoring is a faucet that Durant can turn on and off at will. It doesn’t matter whether he’s in a rhythm or whom the defense puts on him. He can get the ball at any part of the floor and dribble into an open jumper. And if an opposing star gets hot, he can heat up right with him. The percentages are in his favor. One of the greatest shooters of all time, who also happens to be the size of a center, taking open jumpers is usually a winning formula.
One of the biggest questions facing the Bucks in this series is how much they want to put Giannis on Durant. He didn’t defend him much (18.7 possessions) in the regular season. Durant, unlike Butler, can shoot from anywhere on the floor. Giannis would have to pick him up soon after he crossed half court and wouldn’t be able to duck under on screens. That means Durant would have a much easier time forcing the switch, getting Giannis off him, and creating a mismatch against someone else. Giannis would also have to track him off the ball and prevent him from getting easy baskets as a cutter and shooter.
But Giannis doesn’t necessarily have to stop Durant to win the matchup. He just has to score more points than him. That’s what happened in the three regular-season games between the two teams. Durant was as dominant as ever, averaging 34.7 points on 48.7 percent shooting, which would be his third-highest scoring average ever in a playoff series. But Giannis was even better, averaging more points (39.7) on a slightly higher percentage (48.9).
The Nets had no answer for Antetokounmpo. The problem Giannis has faced in the playoffs is that he eventually runs into a team that can build a wall to stop him from rampaging through the lane. But Brooklyn doesn’t have the personnel for it. DeAndre Jordan (72.4 possessions on him) and Blake Griffin (67) are five years too late from having any chance. Giannis can put his own spin on KD’s signature move and use it against the Nets. Get to his spots, elevate, and there’s nothing they can do:
The question for Brooklyn’s first-year head coach Steve Nash, just like for Budenholzer, is how much to put Durant on Giannis. KD has the length to at least bother the Milwaukee star, even if he doesn’t have the same strength or athleticism. Defense has always been an underrated part of his game. His ability to switch the screen between Draymond Green and Steph Curry and defend both players was one of the keys to the Thunder pushing the Warriors to seven games in the 2016 Western Conference finals, a blueprint that LeBron copied in the 2016 NBA Finals. And Durant has held his own in the playoffs against LeBron and Kawhi in the past.
The issue is that the 32-year-old Durant has put a lot of miles on his body since then. He tore his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, missed all of last season, and played only 35 games this season while recovering from that injury, as well as a strained hamstring. Durant can’t bang with Giannis. The best defensive play that he made in the few times he defended him in the regular season (15.6 possessions) was when he drew this charge:
Durant has to win this matchup on guile and savvy. The tables have turned for him. His toughest playoff matchups have come against older players like LeBron, four years his senior, or slightly younger peers like Kawhi. Giannis is six years younger. He was 17 when Durant faced LeBron in the 2012 NBA Finals. LeBron won that matchup with his mind. Now Durant has to do the same.
One of the most fascinating things about the Nets is how Durant chose to build the team around him, especially in comparison to some of his previous squads. He doesn’t have versatile interior defenders like Serge Ibaka or Draymond Green, the kinds of players who could have taken the defensive assignment against Giannis. Durant doubled down on star guards in James Harden and Kyrie Irving instead. He made a gamble to have perimeter playmakers create open shots and make his life easier on offense at the expense of bigger players who could have his back on defense.
Giannis has to make him regret that gamble. That’s the only way the Bucks can win this series.
This could be the start of a historic rivalry. Durant has had some great matchups with LeBron, but they have never played in the same conference on playoff teams. It’s the same deal with Giannis and Kawhi, as the latter spent only one season in the East, winning a title before returning to the West. Giannis and Durant should both be in the East for a long time. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Both have two other All-Stars in their prime on their team. They should expect to win a championship every season. That means going through each other to get there.