The Celtics are set to restart their season against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in what could be an Eastern Conference Finals preview. If Boston truly has aspirations of reaching the NBA Finals, they’ll have to figure out who their primary defender will be against the likely back-to-back MVP.
The Celtics will rely heavily on switches against Antetokounmpo, but they’ll still need to figure out who gets the primary responsibility of covering him on each possession. In previous seasons the answer was Al Horford, who usually did a solid job against Antetokounmpo. This season, here is a ranking of their six best options against Giannis defensively:
6. Jayson Tatum
Tatum often gets overlooked on the defensive end and him ranking on the lower end of this list has less to do with his ability on that end of the floor and more to do with his role on the Celtics as a top scoring option. Wearing Tatum out on defense could prove costly for the Celtics as they rely on him to carry a heavy load on the offensive end. Tatum might be a good option on Antetokounmpo down the stretch in a close game, as his length and athleticism can give Giannis some resistance, but looking for him to be the Celtics “Giannis stopper” in the vain of Al Horford could come at the expense of his scoring. The Celtics have to be sure not to overwork Tatum and given some of the other names on the roster, they should be able to get away with keeping him off Giannis for most of the game.
5. Jaylen Brown
Sticking Brown on Giannis comes with the same issues that putting Tatum on Giannis has as the Celtics rely on Brown for much of their offensive production too, albeit to a lesser extent. Still, Brown will be asked to do more defensively than Tatum will. While Brown does have the length and defensive chops to stay with Giannis, he’s far better suited to matchup against the Bucks other All-Star, Khris Middleton, who has continuously torched the Celtics in many of their recent matchups. Stopping Middleton could be just as important to the Celtics in a series against the Bucks, if not more. It might be impossible to stop Giannis, but stopping Middleton certainly isn’t. If the Celtics can do that, they give themselves a much better chance at taking down the Bucks. Jaylen Brown should be a perfect defensive option on Middleton, which means his role guarding Giannis will probably be limited.
4. Daniel Theis
Theis will likely be switched onto Giannis a lot and will also probably be the primary rim protector on many of his drives, but asking him to mimic what Horford was able to do against Giannis is probably out of the question. Theis isn’t a liability on the defensive end, but he’s not exactly a stopper either. He doesn’t have the athleticism to keep up with Giannis and he doesn’t have the size to be a serious deterrent at the rim either. He can do his part with a few good shot contests and he’s not as flat footed as most centers, but that’s about it. Theis will see his fair share of time against Giannis, especially given his role as the starting center, but he’s not the Celtics first option.
If anyone on the Celtics has the size and athleticism to keep up with Giannis, it’s Williams. The only question is whether or not he’s ready for that responsibility. Williams was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in college, but hasn’t been able to consistently break into the Celtics rotation yet. He struggles with fundamentals, which could prove to be a debilitating flaw against a player like Giannis and a team like the Bucks coached by Mike Budenholzer. If Williams can refine his game and stop chasing blocks at the expense of the integrity of the Celtics defense, he could be somewhat of an x-factor in a potential playoff series. After all, he’s the only player on the Celtics that can be classified as a true rim protector and Giannis is one of the most prolific finishers at the basket in NBA history. However, it’s hard to imagine he’s ready for such an important role at this stage of his career. In a desperate situation, perhaps Williams will be an option for Brad Stevens and on paper he looks perfect for this matchup, but his game just isn’t there yet.
2. Semi Ojeleye
Ojeleye’s build makes him an ideal option for the Celtics to throw out against Antetokounmpo. His bulky frame makes him hard for players to get around, he has a great center of gravity for providing resistance on post ups and he has enough athleticism to stay in front of most NBA wings. Giannis is a tougher test, but Brad Stevens seems to trust Ojeleye as a secondary defensive option against him. In both of the Celtics two games against the Bucks this season, Ojeleye played 20 minutes, or a little over 5 minutes higher than his season average. He may not be the most talented player on the Celtics roster, but it says a lot that his minutes go up against a team like the Bucks. When it comes to guarding Giannis, Ojeleye is a player the Celtics won’t hesitate to utilize.
1. Marcus Smart
What Smart gives up in size against Antetokounmpo, he makes up for in effort. It may seem foolish to put a guard on a player with Antetokounmpo’s length and skill, but Marcus Smart isn’t just any guard. In fact, it’s already worked for the Celtics this season. In their first matchup with Giannis this season, Smart served as the primary defender. Giannis was held to 22 points and the Celtics went on to win. Giannis has had 10 games where he’s scored 22 points or less this season and of those, this was one of only two in which he played over 34 minutes. Smart uses his hands well against Antetokounmpo to keep him from rising up for easy layups and is adept at drawing charges on Antetokounmpo in the post.
Using these clips to illustrate how the Celtics will use Marcus Smart as their primary defender against Giannis. Earlier this season, Smart held Giannis to 22 points in 35 minutes.— KJ Doyle (@bykjdoyle) July 31, 2020
This was 1 of only 2 games this season in which Giannis had under 23 points in over 34 minutes. pic.twitter.com/YgQNZrCXIq
Smart is one of the best defenders in the league and has proven he can hold his own against players of any size. In the 2016 playoffs, Smart’s 2nd NBA season, they matched him up against Paul Millsap. Millsap was torching the Celtics and had 41 points. Brad Stevens put the young Smart on the Hawks forward and he shot 1 for 5 while being defended by the undersized guard. Ever since then, Stevens has been willing to put Smart on any player of any size, even the likes of Joel Embiid, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Smart may not seem like the perfect option against Giannis, but he’s pretty close.
Photo: (Morry Gash – AP Photo)