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Robb column: Celtics solve Giannis Antetokounmpo with Ben Simmons defensive treatment in Game 2

A closer look at the film ahead of Game 2 showed the solution for Ime Udoka. Rely on the 1-on-1 defense from Horford and G. Williams and make sure nothing come easy for everyone else.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls the ball while Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) defends Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in the second half during game two of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — Ever since arriving in Boston in 2016 for the first time, Al Horford has been one of the few bigs in the NBA that can hold his own against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) center Al Horford (42) and guard Derrick White (9) defend against Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in the first half during game two of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports

Any team that has dreams of contending in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future must have someone who can put up a fight against the 6-foot-11 Greek Freak and that likely provided some added incentive for Brad Stevens bringing back Horford this past summer. The 35-year-old veteran may have a lost a step but he still had the strength to battle with the likes of Giannis, Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons when given the opportunity. That’s a skillset that is hard to find in the NBA these days, no matter the price.

While the Celtics came into this series against Milwaukee with the toughest defense, they proved to be a little bit overzealous with it in Game 1 when it comes to defending Antetokounmpo. The Celtics had a pair of strong bigs in Horford and Grant Williams to use against the Bucks top scorer but the team constantly sent several extra bodies at him, opening the door for 12 assists and a hot shooting night for 3 from Milwaukee.

A closer look at the film ahead of Game 2 showed the solution for Ime Udoka. Rely on the 1-on-1 defense from Horford and G. Williams and make sure nothing come easy for everyone else.

The tactic worked wonders in Game 2 as the Bucks shot just 3-of-18 from 3-point range (nearly 20 attempts before their season average) and still managed to hold Antetokounmpo to a subpar shooting night (11/27 FG) with far fewer bodies in his path. The main winners on that front were Horford (Giannis 4-of-12 with him as primary defenders) and G. Williams (2-of-6) who had the strength to keep Giannis from easy uncontested looks on their own.

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“We talked about guarding him a little more one-on-one,” Udoka said after the win. “We feel like we have the defensive guys to do it. Obviously he came out extra aggressive in the second half scoring 28 on 27 shots. We were defending well initially, and Grant’s a big part of that. So, we got four guys we feel comfortable throwing at him. Jaylen and Jayson are bigger wings as well so we can throw a lot of bodies, and that’s one of Grant’s many strengths is trying guys like that, him and Al.”

While single coverage helped the Celtics get back on track, the biggest story of how Boston could end up winning this series comes with their defensive tactics against Antetokounnmpo. With the Celtics providing help around the rim (when needed) against him, the other thing they are also doing is daring Giannis to take jumpers, something he has been unable to make them pay for.

Through two games in this series, he’s shooting just 4-of-14 outside the paint. Move back even further and he’s 1-of-6 from 3-point range.

In past seasons, that was a shot opponents would at least have to respect at times with Antetokounmpo being a 30 career percent 3-point shooter. However, he’s taken a step back in that department this year in the regular season. During the postseason, he’s just 3-of-19 over seven games from deep, making that a shot the Celtics are more than happy to concede, like they do on his first shot attempt of Game 2.

Those struggles make defending Antetokounmpo a lot easier in the series as Ime Udoka has instructed his defenders to give him the ‘Ben Simmons’ treatment. Stay back around the paint and dare him to take shots. He’s not taking the bait thus far with those low percentages and his shots at the rim have been efficient either by his standards.

“We held him to 9 for 25 last game and 28 points on 27 shots tonight, so we know we have the bodies to do it,” Udoka said. “I think some of our rotations weren’t as sharp and our double-teaming unnecessarily with certain personnel on him. So we were optimistic we could duplicate that (from Game 1).”

With no Khris Middleton in the lineup, turning Giannis into a inefficient shooter suddenly puts the Bucks offense in dire straits. There are limited shot creators in this group beyond Jrue Holiday and with open 3s being taken away with Celtics defenders staying home on shooters, we saw one of Milwaukee’s lower scoring nights of the season in Game 2.

The Celtics are far from saying they’ve cracked the code against Giannis in the seven-game series but it appears they have the recipe and personnel to frustrate the potential MVP as the action flips back to Milwaukee.

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Game 3 tips off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7, from Fiserv Forum. Watch it on WDIO.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit masslive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related Topics: MILWAUKEE BUCKS
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