NBA Finals preview, Pt. 2: Defending Giannis would be Ayton’s biggest test

Jul 5, 2021, 7:15 PM | Updated: 8:25 pm
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against Deandre Ayton #22 of the ...
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on February 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The last time we were talking about Deandre Ayton’s success guarding an MVP in the regular season and seeing if it would translate, we got some confirmation.

Ayton was terrific for the Phoenix Suns while marking Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, this year’s MVP. The guy that won it each of the two years before that could be next up for him with a championship on the line.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (hyperextended left knee) is listed as doubtful for Game 1 of the NBA Finals after missing the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s a matchup Ayton primarily took on in the regular season, and it’s unclear at what point in the series he could given Antetokounmpo’s health status.

But if Antetokounmpo plays, it instantly becomes the biggest 1-on-1 matchup of the series.

That’s because Antetokounmpo is the type of athlete that makes it impossible to really plan too far in-depth on how to limit him. And we’ve gotta use the word “limit” there, because there is no stopping him.

After the two teams’ second meeting in mid-April, head coach Monty Williams was correct in saying Ayton did a great job defending Antetokounmpo and that there wasn’t much else the 22-year-old could have done.

Antetokounmpo’s scoring line? Thirty-three points on 12-of-22 shooting.

Try your best to keep him out of the paint, and what happens from there, happens. That’s the gist of it.

Fortunately for the Suns, they have one of the few basketball players on the planet in Ayton that can match up with him athletically. Antetokounmpo shot 10-of-24 (41.7%) in the regular season when defended by Ayton, per NBA.com’s tracking data.

There were a few possessions in the regular season where Antetokounmpo shockingly hit a wall on Ayton, unable to overpower him like the way he does to 99% of the league.

For basketball fans who have seen Antetokounmpo at this level for a few years, that last clip and block by Ayton brought your jaw to the floor.

But to reinforce Williams’ point and the caliber of player we’re talking about here, Antetokounmpo can still bulldoze through those efforts to score.

Which allows him to draw fouls. In the first matchup from Phoenix, Antetokounmpo attempted 21 free throws, converting on 17 of ’em and he scored 30 points elsewhere to end the night with 47.

Antetokounmpo joins Joel Embiid as one of the NBA’s few stars that can play their defender off the floor by forcing foul trouble. Ayton only played 30 minutes in that game, picking up his fourth foul with 4:13 left in the third quarter. An offensive foul at 8:48 remaining was Ayton’s fifth, keeping him off the floor for five in-game minutes.

Williams would love to mirror Ayton’s minutes with Antetokounmpo’s as he did for Jokic in the Nuggets series. Ayton needs to give his coach the ability to do that, and he’s aware.

“Basically just being the first man on defense,” Ayton said Monday of the keys for him while checking the two-time MVP. “Making sure I’m a presence. Foul awareness as well. Always showing my hands and just matching his physicality. This is a guy whose motor is insane, and we just have to match it and compete. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day, just competing.”

With Antetokounmpo’s combination of skill and force to barrel through players on drives, he obviously isolates quite a bit. As you could see in those clips, however, that wasn’t working out a lot in Milwaukee.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenbolzer adjusted, using Antetokounmpo as more of a screener or sending one Antetokounmpo’s way while he was a ball-handler.

The hope for the Suns has to be as few possessions as possible without Antetokounmpo being guarded by Ayton.

The second-best option is Jae Crowder, a fellow starter who grinded well through defending Antetokounmpo in the 2020 NBA Finals as a member of the Miami Heat.

As you can see in those highlights, Crowder will quite literally take those bumps on the chin and provide another physical alternative for Phoenix besides Ayton. The Suns could possibly look to Torrey Craig there too, but it’s getting desperate after any of those three names.

Anteokounmpo’s influence on the series is the most direct swing point of the Finals. His health is the first obstacle in the way of that, but if he gets on the court, Ayton is the next one.

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