The Toronto Raptors did something last season that no other team could.
They made Giannis Antetokounmpo look human - by his standards, at least.
After propelling the Milwaukee Bucks to victory in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Antetokounmpo came back down to earth in the final four games of the series. While the gaudy counting stats (20.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game) suggested the MVP still had his way, his efficiency took a major hit. He shot only 43.5 percent from the field from Game 3 onwards and averaged 4.0 turnovers per game, the bulk of which came in Game 3 and Game 4.
In containing Antetokounmpo, the Raptors were able to limit the Bucks to 99.4 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he was on the court in Games 3-6. It paved the way for them to win four straight and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
So how exactly did they do it and would that same strategy work again?
Let's take a closer look.
How the Raptors contained Antetokounmpo
The Raptors did a couple of things, the most notable being they created a wall against Antetokounmpo.
It's no secret that Antetokounmpo is at his best when he's getting to the basket. According to NBA.com, he averaged 17.5 points per game in the paint last season. In addition to leading the league by a mile, that was the highest mark by any player since Shaquille O'Neal back in 2002-03. Antetokounmpo did so with incredible efficiency, making 73.7 percent of his field goal attempts in the restricted area.
Knowing how dominant of a scorer Antetokounmpo is in the paint, the Raptors made sure he saw multiple defenders whenever he made a move towards the basket. It started with Kawhi Leonard, who was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo in the four games Toronto won, and extended to the four other players who were sharing the court with him.
It worked. Not only did Antetokounmpo average 11.5 points per game in the paint after Game 2, he shot a less efficient 60.5 percent in the restricted area.
It might sound simple on paper, but the Raptors were unique last season in that they had some of the league's best individual and team defenders. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol is a one-time Defensive Player of the Year and Danny Green is a one-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team. Neither Kyle Lowry nor Pascal Siakam have any official defensive hardware, but they're widely considered to be two of the best defenders at their respective positions.
Together, they had the collective IQ to execute Nick Nurse's scheme to perfection.
Toronto's strategy against Antetokounmpo became clear on these possessions:
Leonard makes an incredible defensive play - there aren't many players with the foot speed and strength to keep up with Antetokounmpo going downhill - but notice how Gasol slides over with his arms up high as soon as Antetokounmpo picks up the ball. Had Leonard not blocked Antetokounmpo's shot and forced a jump ball, Gasol would've been in position to either block his shot himself or prevent him from getting a clean look at the basket.
That happened time and time again in the four games Toronto won. Pause almost any one of Antetokounmpo's missed shots or turnovers from those games, and you'll see him surrounded by multiple defenders, like this...
The Raptors were aggressive in loading up on Antetokounmpo when he caught the ball in the post as well, often by sending one of their bigs at him to crowd his space and take away passing lanes.
Antetokounmpo generated only 12.0 percent of his offence in the post last season, but he ranked in the 63rd percentile with an average of 0.99 points per possession. His size, speed, length and athleticism makes him almost impossible to stop 1-on-1 with his back to the basket, especially against a guard like Norman Powell.
It helps that Milwaukee's most used lineup in the series featured Eric Bledsoe, who was one of the worst catch-and-shoot threats in the league last season. Whoever defended him almost operated as a free safety on defence, helping off of him to provide extra pressure on Antetokounmpo.
It's a worrying sign that Bledsoe has been even worse in catch-and-shoot situations this season. The saving grace is that his backup, George Hill, has been one of the league's best 3-point shooters this season. If teams were to ignore Bledsoe again like the Raptors did, it might lead to more minutes for Hill. And if Hill were to have more success than Bledsoe, it might force teams to defend them and Antetokounmpo more honestly.
The second thing the Raptors did to slow down Antetokounmpo was give him space when he caught the ball outside of the paint in halfcourt settings, both as a means to give them more time to recover if he did drive to the basket and as an attempt to bait him into settling for jump shots.
It also worked. In those final four games, Antetokounmpo missed all 10 of his field goal attempts that were in the paint but not in the restricted area and five of his seven shot attempts from midrange. He had some success from 3-point range, but as you can see in the image below, the Raptors weren't particularly concerned about him taking 3s, even wide open ones.
Antetokounmpo's jump shot remains the biggest question mark in his game. Last season, he shot 34.5 percent from midrange and 25.6 percent from 3-point range. This season, he's up to 38.0 percent from midrange and 30.6 percent from 3-point range. Some improvement is better than no improvement, but teams are still willing to take jump shots if it means he isn't getting to the basket.
There is, however, one way in which Antetokounmpo has improved as a shooter since last season, and it might be the key to him beating this scheme should he see it again.
Would it work again?
Even though the Raptors were able to make life difficult for Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, all but one of the games Toronto won was competitive, so Milwaukee might not need him to turn into Stephen Curry to beat the only scheme that's had sustained success against him. Just having something else he can go to when teams pack the paint as aggressively as the Raptors did might be enough.
That "something else" could be as simple as a jump shot in the paint.
We recently got a taste of how having that as a counter can make Antetokounmpo a completely different player. Back on Christmas Day, the Philadelphia 76ers held Antetokounmpo to 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting from the field, making for one of the worst performances of his career. The way they did it was by adopting many of the same principles the Raptors did in last season's playoffs, only with their centre, Joel Embiid, functioning as their primary defender on Antetokounmpo.
Similar to Leonard, Embiid wasn't concerned with Antetokounmpo settling for jump shots outside of the paint. Embiid doesn't have the same foot speed to keep up with Antetokounmpo off the dribble, but his size makes him an even tougher opponent to score on in the paint, allowing him to give Antetokounmpo even more space than Leonard did in halfcourt settings.
When Antetokounmpo tried to attack Embiid head-on, it didn't end well for him.
And when Embiid wasn't matched up with him, the 76ers weren't afraid to pack the paint.
The next two meetings between the Bucks and 76ers went much different. On February 6, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to victory with 36 points on 13-for-25 shooting from the field. Two weeks later, he scored 31 points on 12-for-17 shooting from the field to lead them to another victory over the 76ers.
It was in those games that Antetokounmpo showed off that new jumper.
When he wasn't able to get all the way to the basket against Embiid, Antetokounmpo didn't force a layup; he picked up his dribble and pirouetted his way into a turnaround jumper. It's a counter that he simply didn't have in his arsenal last season.
Here's another example from that same game:
It's not necessarily the smoothest shot, but it's effective. At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, it's almost impossible to block his shot when it's at its peak. He doesn't need to turn into Dirk Nowitzki for it to become this generation's next unblockable shot.
Not even two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert could stop it.
It helps that Antetokounmpo appears to be more comfortable creating space for those shots for himself. SB Nation's Mike Prada broke down Antetokounmpo's "kill shot" in more detail this season, noting how his foot work has improved considerably since last season. He's gone from taking those shots because he has no other option to actively looking for them.
"Maybe his confidence will suffer again this spring, but opponents can't rely on his lack of craft anymore," Prada wrote. "This year's Antetokounmpo is creating far more separation on his turnaround jumpers, thanks largely to a major leap forward in his footwork. (Pun intended.) He's driving his inside foot deep into defenders' stances this year, so they can't recover to bother his shot as easily."
The part about his confidence potentially suffering again in the playoffs is important. Even though Antetokounmpo has added those little turnarounds and stepbacks to his game, he's still not taking them in great volume. According to NBA.com, he's 23-for-41 on turnaround fadeaway shots and 8-for-16 on step back shots through 57 games this season, so he's attempting only one of those two shots per game.
It's an increase compared to last season - he was 9-for-17 and 6-for-24, respectively, on those shots - but it's fair to wonder if he's at a stage yet where it's a legitimate weapon.
If it isn't, teams might still be able to get away with using a Raptors-like scheme against the Bucks. While teams are always going to load up on Antetokounmpo to force others to beat them, it's when they're not knocking down open shots and he's not getting to the basket at will that they have had problems in the past. Whether or not his teammates can make open shots is out of his control, but the Bucks at least have the means to surround him with capable shooters at all times, from Brook Lopez at centre to Hill at point guard.
If it is a legitimate weapon, the calculus completely changes.
What Antetokounmpo was able to do against Embiid this season was a perfect example of why. Embiid has had individual success against Antetokounmpo in the past, but that in-between shot makes him significantly harder to guard because it means Embiid can't simply retreat to the restricted area whenever Antetokounmpo puts the ball on the floor.
And if defenders have to respect that shot, this is the sort of stuff that will happen:
It makes him even harder to guard for players like Leonard. If the league's biggest and longest players can't stop that shot, players shorter than Antetokounmpo don't stand a chance.
In which case, there is nobody who can match up with Antetokounmpo 1-on-1.
In which case, teams are going to have to be even more aggressive in helping out on him.
In which case, the Bucks - a team that already lives at the 3-point line - are only going to get better and more efficient shots.
So would Toronto's scheme work again? We won't know the answer for sure until the playoffs, but there's no doubt that he's far better equipped to handle it than he was this time last year.
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