Did Kawhi Leonard, Raptors Find the Secret to Shutting Down Giannis?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2019

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 19: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks passes the ball during the game against Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 19, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win the NBA's 2018-19 MVP Award. And he's been about as dominant in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. But, for at least the time being, the Toronto Raptors have started figuring out how to slow down the Milwaukee Bucks' superstar.

The advanced stats paint the picture of a dominant postseason. Giannis is second in box plus-minus, trailing only Nikola Jokic. He is fifth in average game score, but he's first among qualifiers on a per-minute scale.

And prior to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Toronto, Giannis was averaging a ridiculous 27.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals in just 32.3 minutes per game.

Then, on Sunday, the Raptors held him to his playoff lows in field goals (tied, five), field-goal percentage (31.3) and game score (7.2). He had one game in the regular season in which his game score was worse than 7.2. Toronto also forced Giannis into a playoff-high eight turnovers.

Did he just have an off night? Or did the Raptors figure some things out on their home floor?

For starters, Kawhi Leonard defended Giannis for a team-high 41 possessions. In Games 1 and 2 combined, he was on him for only 19 possessions.

Put Kawhi's heroics on offense to the side for a moment. What he did as a defender was Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi-level stuff.

For the series, Giannis has nine points in the 60 possessions Kawhi has guarded him. The Bucks have 55 points in those possessions. That's 91.7 points per 100 possessions. This postseason, Milwaukee is scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, which trails only the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets' marks.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - MAY 19: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the basket against Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors during the second half in game three of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at Scotiabank Arena on May 19, 2019
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

When Kawhi is on Giannis, the Bucks score 19.9 fewer points per 100 possessions.

On a more basic level, Giannis is 4-of-16 when defended by Kawhi. In Game 3 alone, he was 2-of-12.

The numbers are even more staggering when compared to what he's doing against the rest of the Raptors.

When Giannis is defended by Raptors not named Kawhi, Milwaukee has scored 211 points on 184 possessions (114.7 points per 100 possessions). Giannis himself has scored 57 points on 18-of-36 shooting against the rest of Toronto.

"Make no mistake," FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring wrote following Game 3, "Leonard's defense on Giannis slowed the Milwaukee star down and helped get Toronto on the board. And if that defensive performance proves to be repeatable, we could be looking at a long series instead of one that almost moved to 3-0 on Sunday."

Kawhi was the key, but if you caught much of the Game 3 action, you likely noticed a trend on Giannis' missed shots.

On this baseline drive, Kawhi did a good job of holding Giannis up just long enough for Marc Gasol to get into position to help:

Here, in transition, Fred VanVleet offered little resistance. But again, there was Gasol:

And finally, on this drive from the elbow, yep, you guessed it—Gasol was there:

It takes a team effort to slow Antetokounmpo down. And that's exactly what Toronto gave on Sunday. Seemingly every time Giannis got inside the three-point line, he faced multiple defenders.

And these weren't lazy double-teams. These were solid help-and-recovers, hands-high doubles and late shows, several of which forced Giannis into turnovers.

"I never expected this series to be easy," Antetokounmpo said, per ESPN's Malika Andrews.

On Sunday, it certainly wasn't.

But the Raptors would be fooling themselves to think their biggest challenge won't respond.

In the regular season, Giannis had just 10 games with a game score below 15—a feat in itself. His numbers following those 10 games: 28.5 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks with a 60.8 field-goal percentage.

The Bucks have responded similarly to poor performances all season, as noted by the Action Network's Evan Abrams:

They'll be ready for Game 4. But, other than taking a few more open shots, there may not be many obvious adjustments to make.

Perhaps George Hill could play more minutes again (he exceeded 30 in these playoffs for the first time Sunday). This postseason, Milwaukee's net rating is 10.0 points better when Hill is on the floor than when he's off it. It's only 0.7 points better with Eric Bledsoe on the floor. And Hill is shooting 43.2 percent from three in the playoffs, compared to Bledsoe's 23.3 percent.

That could make Hill a more reliable kick-out option for Giannis when he gets in trouble. Speaking of which, he simply has to be better in those situations. Dribbling into the corner or too far under the rim caused all kinds of problems in Game 3. He'll need to be more wary of those spaces and more judicious with his passing when the pressure is on.

The easiest fix is to try to get Kawhi off Giannis, but the Bucks can't just ask Toronto to put Pascal Siakam back on him. More screen-and-rolls and fewer clear-outs may be in order. That might get Kawhi to switch off Giannis on some possessions. But few perimeter defenders are as good at fighting through screens as the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

After sitting out most of 2017-18 and then going through a rest regimen that cost him 22 games this season, Kawhi showed in Game 3 he can still carry a team as both a scorer and defender. He's been doing that all postseason, but shutting down the likely MVP produced a statement game.

If he can do it again, in the face of adjustments Milwaukee is likely to make, a series that once looked on track for a sweep could be tied at two games each.

And with Leonard's free agency looming (he has a player option for 2019-20), every game matters for those who enjoy Kawhi in the North.

   

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or ESPN.com.

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