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How the Spurs slowed down the Greek Freak

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With a little discipline, a lot of attention and even more luck

Milwaukee Bucks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

There is no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo. With LaMarcus Aldridge’s size and the athleticism of peak Rudy Gay — and that might be underselling him — the Greek Freak can do things on the basketball court that shouldn’t be possible. Even with the Spurs’ defense completely tilted in his direction over the last two games, Giannis averaged 28 points and 4.5 assists in a little under 32 minutes per game.

In both games, the Spurs employed a tactic that is commonly used against the Bucks’ dynamic big man by attempting to cut off access to the paint when he has the ball at the top of the key, especially if he’s got a head of steam. While that tactic is typically referred to as “building a wall”, the Spurs’ version looks a little more like a picket fence.

With LaMarcus sagging all the way down almost to the free throw line and both wing defenders pinched in at the elbow, there’s very little room for penetration. Just looking at his shot charts, it would appear the Spurs’ efforts at deterrence were more successful on Saturday.

The 1st thing that jumps out is all the red on the 2nd chart, as it should. There’s no question the Spurs benefited from Giannis (and many of his teammates) missing open looks in their rematch on Monday night. But the next thing to notice is how many attempts Giannis took in the 2nd game. While that might seem like a bad thing, especially giving up 14 attempts at the rim, it’s actually a sign of one of the Spurs’ defining defensive traits.

In Milwaukee, Giannis earned 18 free throws, knocking down 15, en route to 32 points on 21 shooting possessions. But in San Antonio, the Spurs sent him to the line just 4 times with 2 and-1’s and a two-point shooting foul: a key reason for his relatively inefficient 24 points on 23 shooting possessions. There’s obviously no guarantee that keeping him off the free throw line like this will be successful on a nightly basis. He could easily have made a few more shots, but forcing him to do so at least creates the chance that he’ll have an off shooting night.

Still, it’s unlikely this type of approach is sustainable. The Spurs gave up an absurd 32 wide open three-point attempts on Monday night, and the Bucks missed an equally absurd 23 of those shots. It is not surprising that the Spurs won going away in a game where they couldn’t miss and their opponents could do nothing but.

In terms of the Spurs’ defense, though, this game provided a little more evidence that they’re trending in the right direction. After a rough stretch to start the season, their ability to defend without fouling has become a strength again over the last month — an important contributing factor to the team’s still-in-progress return to defensive respectability.

The Spurs’ 109.5 defensive rating since December 6th coincides with a dramatic improvement in defensive free throw rate. They gave up 19.4 made free throws per 100 field goal attempts through the first 6 weeks of the season, but that number is just 17.5 per 100 FGA since, which is good for 7th best in the league over that period.

While the number of open threes they gave up could be concerning, it was clearly a schematic choice associated with defending Giannis and not the result of the mass defensive breakdowns that plagued the team early in the year. By focusing so squarely on the Greek Freak, the Spurs’ defense, along with some timely shooting, earned the team a split with what might be the league’s best team. Their strategy certainly wouldn’t be tenable in a seven-game series, but the odds are pretty slim that that’s something they’ll need to worry about this year.