These here Boston Celtics seem dead, filleted and breaded and fully cooked, and their feeble attempts to bridge a series of late deficits last night strongly suggested that, one recent example of a blown 3-1 lead notwithstanding, this is a mentally broken basketball team with one single game between them and the beach. That’s a far cry from their ballsy refusal to die during last season’s playoffs even as their stars were lost to injury. The difference, this year, is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Since getting stymied by Al Horford in Milwaukee in Game 1, Antetokounmpo has grown stronger as the series has evolved, improving his scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage numbers in each successive game. Horford limited him to 22 and eight on 33 percent shooting in Game 1; by last night’s win, the Bucks’ second straight in Boston, he’d effectively doubled his output to 39, 18, and 68 percent shooting.
That unstoppable improvement speaks chiefly to his relentlessness. Giannis never settles, never chills, hardly ever even pulls up. Instead, he continues to go to the rim at every opportunity, and he’s too big and athletic for any Celtic defender to push around as he does so. Possession after possession in the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo would scream into the lane and humiliate someone with a dunk or lay-in, to the point that the Celtics got sick of helping out. That’s the Giannis Antetokounmpo effect: he breaks teams through sheer repetition. Just look at all the sad faces after this game-icing dunk.
Horford is a great defender with a track record of baffling the best big men in the league, but Antetokounmpo has nevertheless never stopped going right at his chest, and the Bucks have added more weird wrinkles to get him free. The Antetokounmpo-Brook Lopez pick-and-roll and the team’s two-man clearout action with Khris Middleton both force Boston to choose between switching onto Antetokounmpo or playing the rotation game against Milwaukee’s corps of able shooters. No other defender has a chance, as Antetokounmpo gleefully drvies through and past everyone, not stopping until he gets to the rack.
It must be so demoralizing to have to deal with that in every play of every game. The psychic effect of Giannis’s constant forward momentum resembles, just in its insistence and threat, the way that Steph Curry’s 35-foot range disrupted defenses at a higher level. It wasn’t just that it was hard to defend, it was that it created so much more work. You can’t scheme for a guy pulling up from half court, and you can’t always plan to stop a 7-foot world-class athlete who is absolutely dead set on dunking on your head whenever he can. The emotional fracture caused by peak-Curry was more profound that what Giannis does, but the way Boston has folded up under his pressure has been eye-opening. In the first LeBron-less playoffs since 2005, Giannis has shown that he’s willing and able to take up the mantle as best player in the East. At least.
To be clear, the Bucks are not merely Giannis and some other scrubs. Game 4's decisive run was the work of a heroic unit of bench dudes, and they took over the game once Giannis sat. This is a complete team, and once Malcolm Brogdon comes back—with a nice extra bit of rest, thanks to his teammates winning both road games in Boston—they will become an even more complete team.
But most of the nonstop shooting works because of Antetokounmpo (to say nothing of his excellent defense), and it’s so fun to watch a superstar who deeply wants to destroy guys at the rim, especially relative to the samey jump-shooting excellence of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. I hope Giannis kicks the shit out of everyone for the rest of the playoffs.