Nickel: How Giannis Antetokounmpo turns up the heat in practice to match Boston Celtics' physical game

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It’s not that Giannis Antetokounmpo shot poorly at all in Games 1 and 2. He was 20 of 52 in those first two games, a win and a loss. He was reliable, and kept attacking, fulfilling his role.

But when the Boston Celtics decided to match him muscle for muscle in these Eastern Conference semifinals, to put hands on him during deadball situations and away-from-the-ball situations, and then hold their own, and sometimes on for dear life, when he answered with his own force, it worked. Antetokounmpo uncharacteristically missed so many driving layups, especially Game 1.

To Antetokounmpo, there’s only one way to fix that.

“I feel kind of bad for our assistants, especially Schuyler,” said Antetokounmpo.

More: Who dares to get between Giannis and the rim? For Bucks video guy Schuyler Rimmer, that's his job

During practices – and this week was no exception, with an unusual two extra days of practice in three days – Antetokounmpo went back to square one, working on making the shot with contact with Bucks assistant video coordinator Schuyler Rimmer, along with the Bucks assistant staff.

"There's nothing like games, there's nothing like game speed, game hits, game physicality,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer. “But Giannis is a worker.

“And the coaching – there's a couple guys that when they finish the season, they’re beat up and bruised. He's getting the best of the replication that we can get for him – with being mindful of his body and keeping them fresh and ready to go.

“But he works when we're not playing."

Giannis Antetokounmpo fouls Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during the first half Saturday at Fiserv Forum.
Giannis Antetokounmpo fouls Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during the first half Saturday at Fiserv Forum.

It paid off in Milwaukee’s Game 3 thunderous win against Boston. A battle from beginning to end, by both defensive-minded teams, Antetokounmpo still managed to score 42 points on 52.3% shooting. With a variety of shots seasoned in – a pull-up jumper here, a three-pointer there – Antetokounmpo made a living with his old standby move: drive to the rim and finish.

He added 9 of 12 free throws as well.

“It’s something that I’ve done since Day 1, play through the contact, be the one to hit first,” said Antetokounmpo. “Be unbalanced. I try to work on it as much as possible and get the extra reps in practice. Hopefully it can relay to the game. Some days it’s going to relay to the game and some days it doesn’t.

“But I definitely work on it in practice.”

Antetokounmpo famously said after Game 1 that his family thinks he’s a weirdo for welcoming so much pummeling and battering. The more beat up he is, the better, he said, after games.

More: 'Maybe I'm weird.' Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo feels great after a physical game leaves his body beat up

And the rest of the Bucks are answering the same way. Boston has to be admired for its defensive prowess not backing down, from Grant Williams taking on Antetokounmpo, to Al Horford holding his own, to Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart playing tough.

The officials whistled Boston for 21 fouls and Milwaukee 26, but every other moment felt like the game could get out of hand. It’s not just the elite level of athleticism on both sides but the willingness to use it to bleed for a possession, or bruise for a defensive stop. Men were falling like bowling pins at Landmark Lanes. There was definitely a let-them-play feel from the officials crew and it didn’t feel safe at times.

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo talks with NBA referee Pat Fraher after Antetokounmpo was called for a foul during the first half Saturday.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo talks with NBA referee Pat Fraher after Antetokounmpo was called for a foul during the first half Saturday.

At the end of the first quarter when Wesley Matthews was sent flying on no call, Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis tried to restrain Budenholzer from going after the refs.

Maybe they would welcome a tighter game called by controlling refs.

More: Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't risk a fine when asked about the referees during his Game 3 news conference because he has diapers to pay for

“Wait, hold on…” said Antetokounmpo, a father of two young boys. “How much does it cost if I say something, comment, about the ref? Is it 20,000? It’s a lot of money, eh?

“So, I should not do it.

“I save my money – I’ve got to pay for diapers.

“Ummmm. I just got to play through it,” said Antetokounmpo, grinning. “We’ve all got to play through it.

“Sometimes they’re going to call it; sometimes they’re not going to call it. But at the end of the day, it’s what (Bucks guard) Jrue (Holiday) said. It’s playoff basketball. And it’s going to be a little more physical, but if you’re about that – you’re about that. If not, you’re going to shy away from it. I don’t think any of our teammates shy away from it.

“Bobby loves that. Jrue. Me, Wes, Grayson (Allen). Pat (Connaughton), all the guys; Brook (Lopez). No matter what the call is going to be, we’re going to keep playing through it.

“We don’t beg.

“We don’t expect.

“We just keep focused on our game plan and what we’ve got to do.”

Antetokounmpo seems to be making enemies as fast as friends — with continuing this style of play. Not from the Celtics, at least not publicly. Both teams have said nothing but respectful things about each other in this series. But in the public eye outside of Wisconsin, Antetokounmpo’s charm can’t always make up for a double shoulder jab to the clavicle of Grant Williams.

Antetokounmpo pushes too, and pushes back. What a lot of people don’t see is the hits that Antetokounmpo absorbs even before he has the ball in his hands.

It’s a great debate for both sides but it's a no-brainer to him.

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo takes a moment before their playoff game against the Celtics on Saturday.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo takes a moment before their playoff game against the Celtics on Saturday.

"The physicality that he takes in the game, the hits – to still finish and score and play, that's how he's built,” said Budenholzer.

Boston coach Ime Udoka was practically begging his team to stop looking to the officials for no calls.

“As much as they’re (refs) going to let you play, we’ve got to play through that. And have our composure,” said Udoka. “And if they’re going to call it that way – consistently on both ends – we’ve got to play through it and not bitch about calls. And get back.”

Antetokounmpo was two assists away from a triple double. He is doing his best to make up for the increasingly glaring absence of forward Khris Middleton, who has missed six playoff games with an MCL strain.

“He’s so great at being mentally strong, even aside from all the on-court statistical things he does,” said Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “He has lots of guys being physical with him. Throwing themselves at him when he’s trying to get in to his moves. He does such a great job with sticking with it. Staying in the game.

“Just keeping his mojo through all that. He goes through a lot out there. And it can be frustrating at times. He does a great job of letting it go, like water off a duck’s back.”

THANK YOU: Subscribers' support makes this work possible. Help us share the knowledge by buying a gift subscription.

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: How Giannis Antetokounmpo got driving layups with contact to work