Come On, Giannis
3:57 PM EDT on May 1, 2022
"Not to give too much of the game plan out," Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams told The Athletic's Jared Weiss, before his team's series with the Milwaukee Bucks began on Sunday, "but...with Giannis—depending on the player—myself, I’ve always been content and comfortable picking him inside the [3-point line]. When he gets momentum, he’s hard to stop, but strength-wise, I do a good job standing him up. I don’t have to pick him up as high as others."
Given that Williams and the Celtics had politely but firmly ushered the Nets into Cancun Mode in large part by flummoxing Kevin Durant into some uncharacteristically ragged games, Williams's was an opinion worth hearing. Guarding Durant and guarding Antetokounmpo are different tasks, as Williams admitted, albeit roughly in the same ways that getting kicked down a flight of stairs is a different experience than getting kicked down an escalator. There are only so many ways to do either in a remotely dignified way, let alone an effective one. A game plan helps, and being as strong and savvy and well-supported by a broader defensive framework in the ways that Williams and the rest of Boston's bigs are helps, too. But, as Williams went on in The Athletic story, it can only really help so much.
"You gotta cut him off and keep him in front," Williams continued. "But next thing you know, he might spin back. If he gets one step, he’ll finish through or over you." This, at least as much as how strong and fast and large as he is, is the thing that makes defending Giannis such an impossibility even for the best defensive players. There has, from his first seasons in the league, always been a pronounced Rolling Boulder aspect to Giannis. In years past, this made Antetokounmpo an ultraviolent delight to watch in the open floor, and less effective in the slower halfcourt slugfests in the postseason. But this boulder now knows how to get itself rolling from a standing start. This is more or less what Williams is saying—you can stop the boulder with your body, but it will just start rolling again. This is not any easier than it sounds.
Anyway, in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee's commanding 101-89 Game 1 win on Sunday, Williams did everything that he said he planned to do against Giannis. He stood him up, twice. He stopped the momentum of the most momentum-intensive player in the sport, and did so cleanly. Then this happened:
If you will pardon my basketball jargon, what we are looking at here is some College Basketball Player Working Against Teenagers In A YMCA Pickup Run shit. More specifically: Giannis, stymied, takes one long step past Williams, banks the ball off the backboard to himself, and then alleys that self-authored oop through the hoop with a great deal of vigor. That this is happening in the NBA Playoffs, against one of the very best defensive teams in the sport, on television, probably has something to do with why the Bucks bench responded like this.
Only Brook Lopez, who has seen some things over the course of his long NBA career, seems suitably frightened by what he has just witnessed. It's not that the people jumping around in delight are wrong to do so. They aren't. It's that only Brook Lopez seems to be considering how worrying it is—indeed how dangerous it is—for a boulder to be able to do these things.