Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Giannis Antetokounmpo taking on the Kevin Durant assignment is more complicated than it might seem

The Milwaukee Bucks had absolutely no answer for Kevin Durant in Game 5.

Playing all 48 minutes, Durant delivered one of the greatest - if not the greatest - performances of his Hall of Fame career, leading the Brooklyn Nets to victory with a historic 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. He got it done efficiently, shooting 16-for-23 from the field, 4-for-9 from 3-point range and 13-for-16 from the free throw line.

Durant was at his best down the stretch, going off for 20 points in the fourth quarter to complete Brooklyn's comeback and give the Nets a 3-2 series lead.

MORE: Is it time for Bucks to go small?

There might not have been anyone in the world who could have slowed Durant down in Game 5, but a talking point after the game was why P.J. Tucker was the one defending him down the stretch, not one-time Defensive Player of the Year and now four-time All-Defensive Team selection Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It appeared to be on the mind of Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum.

Same for Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, a one-time Defensive Player of the Year himself.

So ... is Antetokounmpo the answer to Durant? Let's take a closer look.

How much has Giannis Antetokounmpo defended Kevin Durant this season?

The Bucks played the Nets three times during the regular season. According to NBA.com, Khris Middleton defended Durant the most, followed by Tucker and Antetokounmpo.

Here's how each of them fared in that matchup:

Kevin Durant vs. Bucks (2020-21 season)
Primary defender Minutes Points FGM-FGA 3PM-3PA FT-FTA
Khris Middleton 13:50 29 11-24 2-6 5-6
P.J. Tucker 8:47 29 10-14 4-6 5-7
Giannis Antetokounmpo 4:28 16 6-11 2-5 2-2

Through five games of this series, Tucker had defended Durant far more than anyone else on the Bucks. Middleton has defended him the second-most, followed by Jrue Holiday and Antetokounmpo.

Here's how each of them has fared in that matchup to this point of the series:

Kevin Durant vs. Bucks (2021 NBA Playoffs)
Primary defender Minutes Points FGM-FGA 3PM-3PA FT-FTA
P.J. Tucker 39:44 62 24-49 4-16 10-12
Khris Middleton 12:26 34 9-21 4-6 12-12
Jrue Holiday 6:39 13 5-9 1-2 2-2
Giannis Antetokounmpo 4:19 11 3-8 1-2 4-5

Why the Bucks should have Giannis Antetokounmpo guard Kevin Durant

Beyond the individual accolades, Antetokounmpo is the only player on the Bucks who has any shot of matching up with Durant physically.

Whereas Durant is listed at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds. Tucker, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is strong enough to defend Durant - you saw what he did in Game 4, right? - but he's giving up five inches. Middleton, who is listed at 6-foot-7 and 222 pounds, is at a size and weight disadvantage. Ditto for Holiday, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds.

While we haven't seen Antetokounmpo defend Durant all that much this season, he did come up with a particularly impressive stop against him in Milwaukee's win over Brooklyn on May 2.

The amount of people who have the physical tools to block Durant at the apex of his jumper is ... not long.

That's only one play, but there's reason to believe that Antetokounmpo's size and length could give Durant some trouble.

Why the Bucks shouldn't have Giannis Antetokounmpo guard Kevin Durant

Here's where it gets interesting.

As incredible of a defender as Antetokounmpo is, he's not someone who usually matches up with the opposing team's best player.

According to The BBall Index, Antetokounmpo had a matchup difficulty rating of 37.0 this season, the result of him guarding mostly third and fourth options. That ranked him behind a total of 302 players on the matchup difficulty scale, a list that includes the likes of Nikola Jokic (37.9), Kyrie Irving (63.8) and DeAndre Jordan (81.3).

That's not to say Antetokounmpo isn't capable of guarding primary or secondary options, because he most certainly is, but he's at his best when he's using his long arms to protect the basket and shut down passing lanes. It's what makes him arguably the best help defender in the NBA and one of the best anchors.

Plus, Durant is a really tough matchup for someone of Antetokounmpo's size because of how many ways he can beat you.

He picked the Bucks apart with a steady diet of isolations and pick-and-rolls in Game 5, but there's a whole lot more to Durant's game. If the Bucks do put Antetokounmpo on him more moving forward, the Nets will probably set a lot more screens for Durant, both as a means to wear Antetokounmpo down and to force more favourable switches.

Fighting through screens is an exhausting task for anyone, but especially for someone as big as Antetokounmpo.

Durant has also looked pretty comfortable attacking Antetokounmpo so far in this series.

To be fair to Antetokounmpo, there's not much more he or anyone can do against this:

Or this:

But Durant's shiftiness appears to give him some trouble.

Another concern: Antetokounmpo spending large chunks of the game on Durant could put him at risk of getting in foul trouble. Antetokounmpo picks up enough fouls as is, so they can't afford for him to pick up one or two ticky-tack fouls against Durant.

Why does it feel like we've had this conversation before?

Because we sort of have.

In last season's Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Bucks and Heat, Jimmy Butler led Miami to a stunning Game 1 victory with 40 points on 13-for-20 shooting from the field and 12-for-13 from the three throw line. Like Durant, Butler was at his best down the stretch, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.

After the game, the talking point was once again why Antetokounmpo didn't take on the assignment of guarding Butler. It was a surprise to many, but not to Butler.

"He is one of the best help side defenders that there are in the league," Butler responded when asked why he thought the Bucks didn't switch Antetokounmpo onto him. "And that's what he's been doing all year long. And I think you can't get stuck on what we do. I think you've really just got to focus on what you do - you've been doing it all year."

What's interesting is that Antetokounmpo did take on the assignment of guarding Butler in Milwaukee's first-round series with Miami in these playoffs. He was incredibly successful, holding him to nine points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field in the nearly 20 minutes they were matched up together, per the NBA's matchup data.

With Butler being a limited shooter - he shot 42.4 percent from midrange but 24.5 percent from 3-point range during the 2020-21 regular season - Antetokounmpo took a page out of Anthony Davis' book by sagging way off of him.

When Butler did get into the paint, he was often met by a swarm of defenders.

It goes without saying, but Butler and Durant are completely different players. What Antetokounmpo could get away with against Butler - ducking underneath every screen and daring him to shoot - won't come close to flying with Durant.

Antetokounmpo knows that, of course, and he seems to be excited about taking on the challenge if the opportunity presents itself again.

"I want to take the challenge, and obviously, everybody's gonna have a chance to guard him, but I would love going into Game 6 to be able to guard him and if coach wants me to do that, I'm ready for that," Antetokounmpo said.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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