Early on Tuesday morning, Team USA escaped withover Turkey in their second group stage game of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, and improved to 2-0 in the tournament.
The dramatic victory for the Americans, which was only possible thanks to some huge mistakes by the Turks at the end of both regulation and overtime, received plenty of attention, and for good reason, but it was far from the only exciting game of the day.
A few hundred miles to the West, in Nanjing, Greece and Brazil staged their own thriller. Led by 22 points and nine rebounds from Anderson Varejao, Brazil came away with a 79-78 win to move to the top of Group F. The most interesting note from this game, though, was that reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with just 13 points and five rebounds on 3-of-7 from the field.
After the win, Brazilian coach Aleksandar Petrovic -- brother of late NBA star Drazen Petrovic -- about the performance -- both from himself and his players.
"When I was preparing this game, a lot of people talked and joked about how to stop Antetokounmpo," Petrovic said. "I had for six months in my head, since the semifinals between Toronto and Milwaukee, how to stop Antetokounmpo.
"Why this sport is wonderful? On the other side, you have a guy who won the MVP, he's 23 years old and who stops him tonight? The guy who is 40 years old and kicks his ass on the court! That's basketball!"
That 40-year-old was Alex Garcia (he's actually 39), who took on the initial responsibility of guarding the Milwaukee Bucks superstar, and set the tone with his heady, physical defending.
Following the Brazlian's successful performance on Tuesday, and their coach's boast about his game plan, it's worth looking into whether or not there's anything NBA teams could pick up and implement as they try to stop the Greek Freak from winning a second straight MVP.
Early in the game, Greece made an emphasis of getting Giannis the ball, and he drew two fouls in the first 30 seconds -- one on Bruno Caboclo and one on Garcia. But even though Garcia picked up that early foul, he showed on that possession how he would make life difficult for Giannis all night long.
Standing just 6-foot-4, Garcia would seem like a mismatch against the 6-foot-11 Giannis, but the veteran has a PJ Tucker-style build; he's strong enough to not be bullied in the post, and quick enough to stay with the MVP on the move.
He was often able to use his strength to prevent Giannis from getting to his spots.
And when he couldn't do that, he made the process arduous enough that help could arrive.
In the first quarter, Giannis managed to draw four fouls, but he finished with just six points and two turnovers, and it was clear that Garcia's physical defense was bothering him. Using a much smaller defender seemed to throw him off a bit, and also kept Brazil's bigs free to arrive from the weak side.
Later in the game, even Leandro Barbosa would take a few shifts guarding Giannis, and though he doesn't have the strength of Garcia, the strategy still worked -- in large part due to Barbosa's work fronting and preventing the Greek Freak from even getting a catch.
The early success the Brazilians had defending Giannis paid off in the second half of the game, as the Greeks went to him less and less frequently. He only took three shots in the second half, and just one in the fourth quarter. There were large portions of the second half where Giannis simply floated around on the perimeter, offering little threat.
When Giannis was able to have success, it was often because he was able to get out in transition, where it's almost impossible to defend him, or on the few times he was able to get a head of steam in the pick-and-roll.
By the final buzzer, the Brazilian defensive scheme was so successful that Giannis finished with an equal number of made shots and turnovers -- three -- and just one assist. So what can we take from their game plan?
Would this work in the NBA?
In broad strokes, Brazil decided to guard Giannis with a small wing instead of a big, sent as much help as possible and did everything they could to keep the ball out of his hands. The most unique part of that, obviously, is using the smaller Garcia to guard Giannis.
Can that be translated to the NBA? Well, not really. For one, there are very few players who have the kind of physical tools to pull off what Garcia was doing, which eliminates that strategy for most teams. Plus, while it should in no way be taken as a criticism of Brazil's play, they contained Giannis in a one-off game under FIBA rules and while he was playing for Greece.
As already noted, after finding no success early, Greece largely went away from Giannis for most of the second half, which would never happen with the Bucks. Not only is he Milwaukee's focal point on the offensive end, but they also utilize him in a much different way.
Whereas the Greeks often planted him in the post or had him float around the perimeter, Mike Budenholzer puts the ball in his hands as much as possible, and lets him create from the top of the key or in pick-and-roll. Brazil's defensive strategy simply would not have been as effective if Giannis was able to operate in space, as the few times he got those opportunities showed us.
Furthermore, the Bucks are one of the elite teams in the NBA, and surround Giannis with all sorts of shooters. Teams can't collapse and send multiple help defenders in the same way Brazil could. Of the six different times that Giannis was forced to kick the ball out to the perimeter in this game, his teammates went 1-of-5 and turned it over once.
Petrovic should be commended for his game plan, and Garcia and the rest of the Brazilians did a tremendous job executing it, but NBA coaches won't be looking at this tape when they're scheming on how to guard Giannis next season.