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Giannis Broke Through the Celtics’ Wall and Saved the Series

For six quarters, the MVP front-runner was stymied by a Boston defense hell-bent on corralling his drives to the rim. Then, everything changed. The Greek Freak returned in Game 2, and Milwaukee is back in the driver’s seat.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Giannis Antetokounmpo has made me think about many different things during this breathtaking season, which may well end with him being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year. During Tuesday’s Game 2 between his Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, he made me think of a 67-year-old radio essay written by the legendary performer and modern dance choreographer Martha Graham.

In “I Am a Dancer,” Graham wrote about how dance is the purest celebration of the miracle of the human body, and that while people might lie with their words, the body’s movement never does. “It is a barometer telling the state of the soul’s weather to all who can read it,” she wrote. “Every dance is a kind of fever chart. A graph of the heart.”

And so, when Antetokounmpo—who was bottled up by Al Horford and a swarming Celtics defense in Boston’s blowout Game 1 win—celebrated a pull-up 3-pointer during a huge Milwaukee third-quarter run with some deep shoulder action …

... it told the tale. It was 75 and sunny in Giannis’s soul in Tuesday’s second half, the trend line on the graph was pointing north, and the Bucks hadn’t lost the series in Game 1 after all.

Two nights after surrendering home-court advantage with one of their worst performances of the season against a locked-in Celtics side that exploited their weaknesses, the Bucks returned the favor, annihilating Boston 123-102 to even the series at one game apiece. After six quarters of fits and starts against a defense hell-bent on making him uncomfortable, Antetokounmpo broke through, scoring 15 of his game-high 29 points in a dominant Milwaukee third quarter that both effectively ended the game and reminded us how the Bucks had rolled up the league’s best record during the regular season.

In Game 1, the Celtics busted the Bucks’ pick-and-roll defense with the Horford–Kyrie Irving two-man game and short-circuited Antetokounmpo’s galloping drives to the basket by building a wall in front of him in transition and deploying Horford to smother him in one-on-one coverage. It was a perfect blueprint, which put the onus on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to adapt. However, the Bucks’ party line coming out of Game 1 was that they didn’t need to make major changes to counter. Budenholzer and his players insisted that, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t need a bunch of tactical adjustments; they just needed to play harder and better. And yet, from the early going of Game 2, it became clear that Coach Bud had changed up the Bucks’ game plan in a number of ways.

Some didn’t look so hot at the outset. Nikola Mirotic started in place of Sterling Brown, with an eye toward adding more bankable long-distance shooting to provide better spacing in the half court and a more dangerous scorer to make Boston pay for loading up on Antetokounmpo’s drives. But paired with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez in a jumbo frontcourt, Mirotic had trouble guarding the quicker Jaylen Brown, picking up a pair of fouls that gifted the Celtics five points and sent him to the bench barely three minutes into the game. And while Giannis looked much more aggressive in trying to fight his way to the basket, earning eight free throw attempts in the first quarter, the Bucks offense still seemed to be stuck in the mud save for a hot start by Khris Middleton. On the other end, Milwaukee continued to struggle to keep Horford from getting open looks in the pick-and-pop, especially when Boston involved Lopez in the screening action; the Celtics led 30-25 after the first quarter.

The biggest change Budenholzer made struck at the heart of the Bucks’ defensive identity. Milwaukee spent all season perfecting a drop-back coverage against pick-and-rolls that aimed to prevent drives into the paint and seal off the front of the basket. It worked: The Bucks ranked second during the regular season in points allowed per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, while preventing shots at the rim and forcing misses on them better than any team in the league. But after watching the Celtics take advantage of the space afforded by that drop coverage in Game 1, feasting on a steady diet of pick-and-pop jumpers and midrange pull-ups, Budenholzer had his team start switching screens. He wanted his players to take away the airspace of Boston’s shooters, interrupting the rhythm they’d developed in Game 1, and instead forcing them to generate clean looks against defenders pressing higher up on their marks.

In theory, that’s exactly when Irving, one of the sport’s greatest one-on-one creators, should shine brightest. In practice, though …

... Kyrie scuffled, missing 10 of his first 12 shots, as he struggled to find the range and touch on shot attempts over longer defenders like Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Pat Connaughton, and even bigs like Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova. The switching helped limit Boston’s good looks, holding the Celtics to 41.3 percent shooting in the first half. Those misses and empty possessions allowed Milwaukee to get out in transition more often, leading to a 14-6 edge in the sort of fast-break points that were so tough for Giannis and Co. to come by against Boston’s wall in Game 1.

But even with an improved defensive effort, Antetokounmpo bulldozing to 10 first-half free throws, Middleton pouring in 20 points through two quarters, and the Bucks hitting a franchise-playoff-record 11 3-pointers in the first half, Milwaukee held only a four-point edge at intermission. The glass-half-empty take: The Bucks would be in trouble once Irving got on track. The glass-half-full view: The Celtics were lucky to be so close after such a scattershot start, and Milwaukee might be only a short burst away from figuring things out. It wound up being a good night for the optimists.

Boston misfiring gave Milwaukee more chances to get out in transition, and the Bucks took advantage, racing ahead to try to either maneuver around the Celtics’ free-throw-line wall, avoid it with Middleton pull-up 3s, or break through it by using Antetokounmpo as a battering ram—a much more effective strategy when he was matched up with Aron Baynes or Marcus Morris than Horford. Milwaukee got out on the break on nearly 21 percent of their offensive possessions Tuesday, only a slight increase over its Game 1 transition frequency, but with drastically improved results. In Game 1, the Bucks averaged about 1.17 points per transition play; in Game 2, it was 1.45.

Budenholzer also got Antetokounmpo involved in the pick-and-roll game, as both the screen-setter and the ball handler, to positive results. The Bucks took advantage of opportunities to attack away from Giannis, too, and Middleton (28 points on 10-for-18 shooting with seven rebounds) and Eric Bledsoe (21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, five assists, three rebounds, two blocks) came up huge. The more Antetokounmpo attacked and the more effectively he did it, the more Boston’s help defenders cheated off their men to try to keep him from getting to the rim and the line. That opened up everything: The Bucks scored 39 points on 57 percent shooting in the third. Add to that a cranked-up defense that got nastier as the game progressed, suffocating the Celtics with activity and length—Boston scored just two points between the 7:06 mark of the third quarter and 10:51 to go in the fourth, shooting 1-for-13 from the field and committing four turnovers—and Milwaukee had everything it needed to put the C’s to sleep.

Just as the Bucks were unlikely to play as poorly as they did in Game 1 a second time, it’s reasonable to expect they won’t make a playoff-franchise-high 20 3-pointers in Friday’s Game 3. Irving probably won’t shoot 4-for-18 from the floor or squander possessions with errant passes all night, back in the friendly confines of TD Garden. You’d expect Brad Stevens to have an answer for Milwaukee’s switching come Friday, too; we saw a little bit of Horford and Jayson Tatum posting up smaller guards, but not much, and that could wind up being a bit more of a weapon.

But this is how it looks when the Bucks meet the moment. They win every minute Horford’s off the floor and Giannis physically overwhelms every other defender he sees, they sell out to take away Boston’s rhythm jumpers and run like their lives depend on it off the misses, and Giannis makes the right passes against Boston’s pressure and his teammates respond by making open shots. When the Bucks play like this, the walls that hold them in come tumbling down, and nothing can stand in their way. It’s enough to make a guy feel like dancing.