Giannis Antetokounmpo is a completely different sort of human, is what he is. The very best NBA players are almost always in that category. Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the agile colossuses with soft hands. Michael Jordan, LeBron James: there was only one of each. Steph Curry might be the most relatively normal superlative player ever, and he’s an incredible athlete. Him and the other greatest shooter in history, Steve Nash.
But Giannis feels like an evolutionary step, seven feet tall with endless arms and hands like dinner plates and agility and strength and a sense of how to play the game. He’s from this planet. It’s a real credit to the planet, really.
Enter Kawhi Leonard. He is a slightly more regular human, relatively. But he might be the best Giannis defender there is.
“You’re going to try to attack, but you’re not going to attack as much as you would if you see another guy on you,” said Raptors guard Danny Green. “Kawhi deters a lot of people.”
Leonard barely saw Giannis in the three regular-season games in which they both played. Pascal Siakam, who could be a future all-defence player, got three times as many possessions in which he was deemed to be the primary defender. In those 93 possessions against Siakam, Giannis scored 41 points. He took more shots than his usual rate. Siakam did fine, more or less.
In 31 regular-season possessions against Kawhi, Giannis scored four points. He took three shots, and had three assists. Milwaukee’s offensive rating plummeted. It wasn’t that he tried to attack Kawhi and failed. It was that the alien superman barely tried to attack Kawhi at all.
So in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, with the Toronto Raptors staring down an 0-2 series deficit, coach Nick Nurse stuck Kawhi on Giannis. Nobody guards one player exclusively anymore — there are too many pick-and-rolls, too many switches, too many chances to run in transition — but Kawhi was the primary defender.
Kawhi was a monster, first-quarter limp and all. He was deemed to have guarded Giannis for a team-high 41 possessions, during which Giannis scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting with two turnovers and one assist. On those possessions, the Bucks scored a mere 35 points. At 99-96, Giannis drove and Kawhi pinned the ball as he gathered it, and forced a jump ball that Toronto won. There is a sense in the Raptors organization that the all-galaxy alien is, against Kawhi, a little tentative. Not scared, but deterred. The numbers largely bear it out.
“He’s a two-time defensive player of the year for a reason,” said Green. “Everybody knows that; it’s not a secret. He’s very good with his hands, he’s very good at stealing the ball, and guys have to protect that. So knowing that, you’re more reluctant, no matter how good a scorer you are, to attack certain ways. You have to be more careful in how you attack.
“I just think it’s natural for anybody in basketball, even the greatest players, to see a great defender and be a little more picky in how you attack. Because you can’t just attack the way they want to. He’s so crafty with his hands; you can’t be comfortable around a guy like that.”
It wasn’t just that Kawhi set Giannis on a hesitant path — the Greek Freak didn’t shoot at all in 17 possessions against Siakam, and Marc Gasol stripped him of the ball more than once, and the Raptors sent traps and doubles — but the Toronto superstar also played team defence, helping and then recovering for steals. It was like he could be in two places at once.
And as a result, at times Toronto didn’t have to help quite as much on Milwaukee’s shooters, and the potential MVP finished with 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting, plus eight turnovers. He only went 5-of-12 in the paint. Kawhi is a bull with safecracker’s hands, and his balance and footwork are near-impeccable. If Giannis is muffled, the Bucks can be beaten.
“That’s why we had him on Giannis from the jump, and he wanted that assignment,” said Green.
And as the Raptors face another effectively do-or-die matchup in Game 4, Kawhi limiting Giannis is a centrepiece to Toronto’s hopes. Giannis figured out Al Horford in the second round. Kawhi may be a different challenge.
“You got Kawhi, probably the best two-way … basketball player in the NBA and you can kinda take a little bit of help off Giannis, and let Kawhi play one-on-one, but just give him different looks, different bodies,” said point guard Kyle Lowry. “Think four or five guys guarded him last night. Just give him different looks and different bodies and different areas, situations, try to make him as uncomfortable and (be as) unpredictable as we can possibly be.”
Kawhi Leonard once turned a younger LeBron James inside out in a playoff series, and LeBron had more ways to score than Giannis does. Toronto’s half-court defence in this series has been superb; it will have to remain so, to have a chance. Giannis told Milwaukee reporters he would have to attack Kawhi, if only to sap his energy for the other end of the court. Kawhi’s health, after all that limping, remains a closely guarded secret.
But Kawhi doesn’t seem to fear anything in basketball. Let the biggest deer come.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur