For Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard became insurmountable early in Game 4.
The Raptors led by 10, and Giannis had missed four of his last five shots. So with 6.5 seconds left in the half, he leaned on ol’ reliable: sprinting up the court, catching the ball with a running start over the help defense, barreling into the paint and drawing a whistle.
The raucous fans at the Scotiabank Arena who witnessed Giannis airball a free throw earlier in the game were starved for more. But he silenced them, nailing both attempts.
Eight minutes later, he was back on the court shooting around, flanked by teammates D.J. Wilson and Tony Snell. Giannis likes to exit the locker room early before the second half, a staple of a routine built around sussing out weakness and laziness, finding edges where he can outwork his foes. In early February, he even shot through a Ja Rule concert. He started at the free-throw line, nailing five in a row, before backpedaling to the 3-point line, rattling in 10 pull-up threes, before heading back to the stripe.
“When guys are coming out of the half, their legs are stiff,” he explained in Boston before Game 4 of the second round. “That’s why I come out early, try to get my legs going, try to warm up, try to get my body flowing and my blood flowing, and just when the games start, I try to be extra aggressive.”
The Bucks’ season, and the success of the five-out offense that obliterated the league, operate on a fundamental principle: Giannis, perhaps like no other superstar before him, could attack the rim at will — with or without a jumper — so long as he’s locked in. Part of the reason the Bucks’ second back-to-back loss of the season didn’t come until Game 4 was because of how well Antetokounmpo bounced back after losses. Was this a sign, then, that the budding superstar finally decided to stop playing with his food?
He tried, at least. But the Raptors have their own decider. Antetokounmpo is a relentless worker, but in Game 4 he was rewarded only with the indignities of effort. Within the first two minutes of the second half, Leonard dunked all over him. Then he stole an inbounds pass intended for Giannis. Antetokounmpo responded by missing a three and charging into Kyle Lowry. Leonard has been Antetokounmpo’s primary defender since Toronto dropped the first two games of the series, turning Giannis into a jump shooter and steadying the ship on offense, powering a low-turnover, high-efficiency attack that prevents the Greek Freak from imposing his chaos on the game and muzzles his ability to run the floor in transition. The series hasn’t been the same since.
Against the Raptors, Giannis is shooting 31.7 percent from three and 56.6 percent from the line. Flared nostrils and an open runway can’t solve that problem. It’s going to take an offseason or two in the gym, but right now, he only has one off-day until Game 6.
In Thursday night’s Game 5 victory — which gave Toronto a 3-2 East finals lead — Leonard mastered the formula for impeding Giannis: from about a foot and a half away, he mimicked the direction of Giannis’ hips and mirrored his drives, backing into the rim in harmony with Antetokounmpo. Leonard is the NBA’s strongest defender, but he didn’t try to impede Giannis’ progress. That’s how he either gets to the line or uses his long limbs to Eurostep around you. Leonard shadowed him to the rim instead, saving his strength — and his length and intuition — to contest his attempts, or goad him into kicking the ball out. For the series, Antetokounmpo has connected on just 35 percent of his shots with Leonard guarding him. In the 131 possessions he spent draped by the former Finals MVP, Giannis scored 26 points, dished out four assists, missed 5 of 6 threes and coughed up the ball five times.
When the Bucks tried to get Giannis switched onto Danny Green, a nimble but skinnier defender, Leonard naturally slid into help mode, forming a wall at the nail whenever Antetokounmpo drove. The Bucks’ five-out offense was designed to simplify decision-making in these scenarios. Two on the ball leaves a shooter open. But the Raptors are filled to the brim with defenders who excel at pretending to be in two places at once, from Leonard and Pascal Siakam all the way down to Lowry, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.
Lowry, for his part, credited elbow grease when asked how the Raptors have kept Milwaukee’s shooters at bay. “Communication, trying to get out, understanding rotations, understanding where the next pass is, and just playing hard,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes an extra effort to get out there. It takes an extra three steps or extra jump. The message that we’ve been preaching the last couple games is just play hard.”
At halftime of Game 5, Toronto assistant coach Adrian Griffin told TSN’s Kate Beirness that against the Bucks, the best defense is a good offense. With one-fourth of their points coming from the break, the Bucks — powered by the NBA’s best defense — lead the postseason in transition frequency.
“Not only do we have the MVP,” Bucks GM Jon Horst said of Giannis before Game 5, “but we have the Defensive Player of the Year. His impact on our overall defense is significant. The way he has increased his rebounding and his rim protection and just his attention to detail. He’s one of the best in isolation matchups. When you look at guys like Rudy Gobert, different guys that have the reputation of being the best defensive players, Giannis is actually better than those guys at defending the rim. His impact on our defense is unbelievable.”
It’s true. He also contested a lot less attempts than those guys, in part because he spends so much time on the perimeter, and in part because his mere presence is an intimidating factor. Drivers beware: The Great Wall of Giannis, nestled on the baseline between the corner and the rim, is awaiting your arrival so he can generate the chaos that powers Milwaukee’s deadly transition game.
In the modern NBA, help defense is an act of sussing out deception and recovering to the right option. But Antetokounmpo’s otherworldly size and speed allows him to move at the speed of the ball, making his move after the ball-handler rifles a pass. In the second half of Game 5, he saw Pascal Siakam rolling to the rim twice, blocked the first attempt and successfully contested the other.
Enter Point Kawhi, the ultimate pacemaker, never playing in a rhythm that doesn’t suit him. Raptors guard Malcolm Brogdon tried to lead Leonard into Antetokounmpo’s stratosphere or at least squeeze him into the court’s least attractive spots.
But Kawhi is one of the best isolation players in the league, and he thrives at a lost art: the short game — that barren wasteland six to 10 feet away from the rim, abandoned by most teams in the last five years. You want to wall off the lane? Fine. Leonard doesn’t need to get to the rim to be successful, and he can get closer than nearly any other player can without wading into Giannis’ stratosphere.
Leonard opened the fourth quarter of Game 5 by hitting back-to-back threes over Brook Lopez. Leonard — the ever-steady practitioner too strong to get swatted by double-teams, too expedient to throw caution to the wind and let crosscourt passes fly — then proceeded to work on Brogdon. That Leonard’s career-high nine assists came in a game in which taking care of the ball was an utmost priority speaks to his command of the court and his ability to get to his spot and wait out the risk. In the last three games, Antetokounmpo has scored just four points off turnovers.
We joke that Leonard is a robot — the NBA’s dribbling information processing system. Humor the notion for a second, though, and then ask yourself: Where else would you want the ball but between his iron grip?
“I think it’s more fun for everybody to play in ball movement,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before Game 5. “I think it’s more fun for everyone to watch. I think it builds a better energy and spirit to play at the other end, but there’s some times when giving someone the ball and getting out of the way is the right answer, too.”
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