- We all know Giannis Antetokounmpo's playbook: He's driving to the rim as forcefully as possible. But how do you stop him? That question continues to stump the NBA.
There is no mystery to Giannis Antetokounmpo. On every touch, he has the same end in mind: a meeting with the rim, as forceful as is possible. Antetokounmpo's dominance is cemented by this frustrating simplicity. There is no cat-and-mouse game, as with Stephen Curry's flinching shot fakes. There is no world of possibility, as with LeBron James and his full view of the court. Antetokounmpo's shot chart telegraphs exactly where he means to go. All that remains to be seen is how he manages to get there.
That "how" defines one of the league's most unstoppable scorers. The best defenders in the league study Antetokounmpo's moves. Entire teams load up against him with a full array of obstacles. Yet to the extent that any of those opponents are relevant, it is as an accessory—to be spun around, stepped past, or scored over. There is a perfect consensus as to what kinds of shots to take away from Antetokounmpo and a near-perfect failure to actually deny him.
Only once this season has Antetokounmpo scored fewer than 28 points in a game. The rest has been an onslaught. What the Bucks experience on a nightly basis amounts to frantic attempts at real-time problem solving. Some opponents choose to give Antetokounmpo space on the perimeter, which he then uses against them. Others play him closely and forfeit lanes to his quick first step. Milwaukee draws more defensive three-second violations than all but two other teams in the league because Antetokounmpo, unspeakable terror that he is, keeps everybody on edge.
It's easy to understand why when a sudden spin move could completely neutralize an individual defender:
It's on possessions like these that all of Antetokounmpo's ridiculous proportions come to bear. The footwork of his spin alone makes him a nightmare; Giannis will always cover more ground with that single step than his defender would, at which point they have no chance at all of matching his extension toward the rim. Such is a common theme with Antetokounmpo. To keep square with him is already a disadvantage. Give up an inch and the only way for a defender to get back into the play is through dramatic overcorrection.
Some are tempted, then, to treat Antetokounmpo as they would a quicker attacking guard: by backpedaling on the drive and closing the gap on the shot. It's a fair idea in theory, upended by the fact that Giannis will run you right into the hoop:
Antetokounmpo has taken more shots at the rim than any other player in the league (and made a jarring 79.6% of them) for a reason. He's become effectively settle-proof; no matter what a defender tries, there is only so much they can do to account for the fact that from any point of separation, Antetokounmpo will cover so much more ground on every step than they possibly could. One long stride can be the difference between a defender believing they're square and knowing they're toast:
Help defenders, too, can assume perfect position only for Antetokounmpo to sidestep them completely. He is massive. He is powerful. And even though he intends to drive at every opportunity, Antetokounmpo is just too damn slippery for a defense to do much of anything about it.
In years past, a slighter Antetokounmpo could be steered by veteran defenders, made to drift from the hoop for more challenging shots. That option is effectively off the table. The physical changes are obvious, as are the changes in how he navigates the floor. Those little holds that might have once slowed Giannis from getting to his spots? Futile. The bumps that used to neutralize his momentum? Consider them absorbed. Antetokounmpo has the legs to power him through, the arms and shoulders to safely manipulate the ball along the way, and the core strength to steady every move.
For a player that robust, scoring can come as easily as bumping a player off his spot in the post:
Antetokounmpo, through his revised physical profile, has become the perfect continuation player. LeBron has long been able to shrug off fouling defenders on the way to a score. What makes Giannis even more of an anomaly is the range at which he can power through. No matter the point of contact, Antetokounmpo always seems to be within one step and arm's reach of the hoop.
Sometimes Antetokounmpo will begin his drives at the three-point line, where he revs up before hitting his defender with a hesitation move or some subtle shift in direction. In other cases, the Bucks will isolate him around the free throw line, a la Dirk Nowitzki in the late 2000s. Their approaches could not be more different. Where Nowitzki used the threat of the shot to open up the drive, Antetokounmpo relies on the immediacy of his drives to sell themselves. A defender has to have the right size, speed, and positioning to have any chance of stopping Giannis. Even then, their guesswork—in terms of which direction he'll push and in what manner—has to be perfect. If it's not, Antetokounmpo's starting point is already so close to the basket as to obliterate any capacity for a defense to recover.
This is a quality that Antetokounmpo shares with Kristaps Porzingis: When a defender does make a mistake, the disparity in length alone makes it almost impossible for that defender to find his way back. With Porzingis that manifests with a giant jump shooter lording the ball well over his defender's head. For Giannis, the extension comes horizontally—a defender held off on one side of his body while the opposite arm takes the ball half a world away.
Giannis has become undeniable. Opponents who try to prevent him from getting the ball in the first place leave their defense exposed to his back cuts. Fronting him in the post without an outright double-team can often be as good as conceding a layup. On the break, sometimes three or four defenders may not be enough to stop him. Antetokounmpo tearing down the court has a way of diffusing responsibility, with every defender hoping that someone else might step up to stop his progress. The result is a parting of the waters for the most dangerous transition player in the game:
This is how a purely dominant scorer bends a defense to his will. Most every other player in the league operates under the veil of variety. The possibility of making one kind of move creates room for another. Not so for Antetokounmpo, who can’t even convincingly eye the rim from afar. Defenders know where he’s going but lack for the means to actually stop him. Instead, they try whatever they can. They gamble, they swipe, and they sell out in one direction or another. What dooms them is less a matter of focus or toughness than it is hard science. To even stand next to Antetokounmpo is to be at a loss. To stand in his way throws that contrast into starkest relief.