The NBA, once chock full of rivalries, now runs quite thin on them.
The players—even star ones—switch teams more frequently than ever before. Many of the biggest names already have close, established friendships with opposing players before they’ve entered the league—a product of the bustling AAU circuit. And even where rivalries do exist, they often are rooted more in two individuals going head-to-head, be it Steph Curry vs. Chris Paul or LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, rather than the teams they play for.
Because of that, the Bucks and Celtics are a welcome breath of fresh air. Aside from the clubs being clear favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference finals after a hard-fought, seven-game series last postseason, there’s one other element of the star-studded Christmas matchup that helps it stand apart from the others: The otherworldly physicality from one play to the next.
In a contrast from the controversial 1980s Bad Boys Pistons or the 1990s Blood in the Garden-era Knicks, though, this matchup isn’t drawing blood due to defenses that occasionally cross the line with intimidating tactics. In fact, much of the ceaseless physicality stems from one matchup: two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and whichever Celtics player is guarding him.
The 6’11” Antetokounmpo, who’s drawn comparisons to a modern-day Shaq due to his paint dominance, often induces that contact by barreling through the defensive walls that have been placed in front of him. During last season’s East semifinals, that wall was usually Boston’s Grant Williams, who had chest-to-chest collision after chest-to-chest collision with the Bucks star.
“I never really [ice]. Unless I played like 42 minutes or something, I usually don’t really need it. With the type of player I am, and the body type I have, I feel like I normally recover pretty well,” says Williams, who, ironically helped win the series for Boston with a massive offensive showing in the decisive Game 7. “For the first two or three games of that series, I was like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ But then after Game 5, I was like, ‘I might need to get in the cold tub once or twice.’ I needed to start taking care of my body [better], so I didn’t fall a step or two behind.”
For Antetokounmpo’s part, he’s sought to build himself into a player who can shake off contact. But he hears it often from coaches that he shouldn’t always make it look that way. “There are times they tell me, ‘You have to sell it more—this would be a Flagrant 2 if it happened to somebody else,’ ” Antetokounmpo says. “I don’t know how to sell it, though. I just try to play through contact, and [hope] it takes a toll on my opponent more than it does on me.”
(Williams said he saw—and took pride in—footage of Antetokounmpo grunting loudly, presumably due to excessive soreness, before he took a seat to do a postgame interview following Game 5.)
This isn’t the only physicality these teams bring, of course. Far from it.
The Bucks are one of the peskiest teams in basketball, even from when the ball is inbounded, because of ballhawk Jrue Holiday and the way he defends at the point of attack. Grayson Allen certainly has a reputation for being physical, albeit in a way that many don’t appreciate. Bobby Portis plays with reckless abandon on the offensive glass. And Brook Lopez, who’s nearly perfected the art of verticality, figures to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.
On the other side of the ledger, the Celtics—last season’s No. 1 defense—have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart, who is notorious for getting into the body of offensive players to impact their dribbles and shots. Despite appearing in only 56 games last season with the Nets, new Celtics forward Blake Griffin tied for the league lead in charges drawn with 26 of them. Guard Derrick White finished with 25. Boston flustered Kevin Durant and the Nets in a four-game sweep in the first round because of all the length and strength it had on the wings. And none of that even brings up big man Robert Williams III, who just returned to the lineup following offseason surgery and is a force around the rim.
With Antetokounmpo, it might seem like an unenviable task to guard a near seven-footer who’s both hulking and Eurostepping his way to 30- and 40-point nights. The mistake so many make with him is backing up a step or two in an effort to try to brace for the impact that will happen at the point of a collision. If and when you do that, Giannis usually gets a dunk.
Because of that, Grant Williams mentally tells himself to either step up or stand in place instead. “Listen: I’m gonna put my head in there. So if [a nasty collision] happens, it happens. If I break a nose, if I get my teeth knocked out, it happens,” he says. “But I’m not going to pull out of there. He’s obviously tough. But I have to show [Giannis] that I’m tough, too.”
Funny enough, Williams said he and Celtics big Al Horford quietly fought each possession over who would get to guard Antetokounmpo, illustrating part of why this Boston-Milwaukee matchup is so competitive.
“I wanted to guard him every single play. And whenever Al and I were in the game together, I’d look at him and say, ‘I got him,’” Williams recalls. “Al would look at me and be like, ‘You sure?’ And then he’d say, ‘Well, you’ve got two fouls, so let me take him.’ We were basically making excuses about why we should get to guard him from one play to the next.”