BOSTON — Let’s be perfectly clear here: There is no way to actually stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak might be steamrolling his way towards an MVP trophy with the same sort of ease he typically plows through defenders on his way to the rim.
And it would be misleading to suggest that the Celtics have found any sort of kryptonite for a player who averaged 25.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists while taking Boston to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs last season.
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But the Celtics do have Semi Ojeleye, a second-year forward with a brick-wall chest and hulking arms, who coach Brad Stevens has repeatedly deployed in hopes of at least making Antetokounmpo work to get his points. And that might just be one of the reasons why the Celtics have had a fair amount of success against the Bucks in recent seasons.
Consider this: In the first meeting between these two teams in November, Ojeleye, who had totaled 23 minutes in Boston’s first seven games of the season, got called upon for 22 minutes against the then-undefeated Bucks. And all but two minutes of that floor time featured Antetokounmpo on the floor across from him.
Ojeleye defended Antetokounmpo a team-high 24 possessions that night and had modest success. He held the Greek Freak to nine points on 3-for-6 shooting, committing just one shooting foul and forcing a turnover. But a deeper dive into the shared floor stats hammers home Ojeleye’s potential impact.
In the 20 minutes the two players were on the court together, the Bucks owned an offensive rating of just 102.4. What’s more, Milwaukee’s defensive rating in that 20-minute span was 131, leaving the team with a minus-28.6 net rating in that span. Milwaukee’s offensive rating was a more robust 111.9 for the night.
An outlier? Maybe. But in the 37 minutes of tracked court time that Ojeleye and Antetokounmpo shared in the 2017-18 regular season, the Bucks had an anemic offensive rating of 92.6. It should be noted that one of Boston's visits to Milwaukee wasn’t tracked because the teams played in a non-tracking arena, but that was also some of Ojeleye’s best work against Antetokounmpo last season and really put the rookie on the map as a possible contributor.
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Even in the playoffs, the Bucks offensive rating when Ojeleye was on the court with Antetokounmpo was 1.5 points lower than the Bucks’ average for the entire series. In Game 7 in Boston, Ojeleye got elevated to a starting role and was tasked with guarding Antetokounmpo for a whopping 43 possessions (no one else took more than 19). The Greek Freak finished with 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting against Ojeleye, but did not draw a shooting foul against him.
Ojeleye would be the first to suggest he's uncomfortable with a label like Giannis Stopper. Heck, Giannis Slower might be pushing it. But the Celtics have the luxury of being able to throw out a young player who has the size and speed to actually make Antetokounmpo work a bit for his points.
And that’s all that Ojeleye tries to do when called upon to defend an MVP-caliber talent.
"You just have to understand that he’s always attacking and try to make it as tough as possible every play,” said Ojeleye. "I think when you try to eliminate the easy ones and make him work for everything, that’s all you can do.”
"We watch a lot of film, try to look for his tendencies, but a guy that’s built like that, that has that kind of athletic gifts, it’s tough. Because the things he does are just crazy out there. You have to keep coming every play.”
Stevens likes that Ojeleye is ready whenever he’s called upon, especially when tasked with defending some of the league’s most elite scorers.
"Semi’s always ready for the challenge and that’s the bottom line,” said Stevens. "Semi is always ready for the challenge. Nobody can stop Giannis individually, you have to throw as many bodies as you can at him and [Ojeleye] is one guy that's prepared and he’ll work as hard as he can to make it as tough as possible.
"But nobody is going to stop him 1-on-1 for a full game.”
And that might ultimately be the key realization when defending Antetokounmpo. He’s going to get his points but defenders have to be OK with moving on to the next play.
Stopping Antetokounmpo gets exponentially more difficult tonight because the Celtics will be without Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris. That eliminates some of the back line help that might deter Antetokounmpo drives. It also takes away one of the other primary Antetokounmpo defenders in Morris.
Which means Ojeleye must be ready. He won’t be perfect, but if Boston is to have any chance, he has to make things tough.
"For me, it’s just a mindset,” said Ojeleye. "The challenge, you realize that. And you have to set your mind to realize, my job is to make it tough. Not to necessarily stop him, but just to make it tough.”
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