How Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors have shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo to take control of the conference finals

The Milwaukee Bucks have been pushed to the brink. After a 105-99 loss to the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at home, the Bucks are all of a sudden down 3-2 in the series, less than a week after opening up a 2-0 lead in that very building.

All season long they rampaged through the league, racking up more wins than any other team thanks to MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 3-point heavy offensive attack and the best defense around. Through the first 11 games of the playoffs, they were 10-1, and had still only lost consecutive games once all season. Now, they've lost three in a row, and one more will mean an end to their charmed campaign.

That's what happened, but the big question at the front of everyone's mind, is how? How, in the span of a week, did the Bucks go from a team some were saying could end the Warriors reign, to being one game from elimination?

On a micro level, there are all sorts of reasons, ranging from cold shooting to giving up key offensive rebounds. But zooming out, the key to the Raptors' turnaround in this series has been their ability to contain, and at times shut down, the Greek Freak.

Over the last three games, Giannis is averaging 20.3 points on 45 percent shooting from the field, 13 rebounds and six assists, which for any other player would constitute an excellent series. But it hasn't been good enough for the potential MVP, and especially not when Kawhi Leonard is taking his game to another level on the other side.

Ahead of Game 6 in Toronto, here's a look at three key factors to the Raptors' success against Giannis.

Individual brilliance from Kawhi Leonard

First and foremost, the Raptors have perhaps the league's best individual defender to throw at Giannis. Leonard has the unique combination of size, athleticism, strength and defensive awareness to match Giannis on his drives to the rim. Some players in the league may have two, or even three of those ingredients, but no one else in the league has them all in the way Leonard does.

"I think what Kawhi brings, regardless of who he is matched up on, is great size," Nick Nurse said ahead of Game 4. "He's got great strength. He's got a really good instinct to play defense as well, so he's showing you a lot by just presenting himself in front of you. He's got good feet. I don't want to say this fourth; it probably should be first. But he wants to stop you, and that goes a long way. Those are four pretty good things."

During the first two games, Pascal Siakam was the primary defender on Giannis, but after the Raptors went down 2-0, Leonard took over the role. The adjustment has been a smashing success. In Games 3-5, Giannis is 9-of-27 from the field with four turnovers in the 112 offensive possessions where he's been guarded by Leonard, per the NBA's matchup data.

"Yeah, I mean, I know coaches are like this a little bit," Nurse said after Game 5. "But I -- as impressive as his offense is, and it's impressive -- I get more impressed when he's down there guarding and making plays and blocking shots and flying in for rebounds, and my favorite thing is when he just decides once or twice a game to just go take it from somebody and go the other way, those are huge momentum plays, and that's impressive to me."

Leonard has had moments of pure magic, where he's played about as perfect defense as one can play. In the first clip below, he cuts Giannis off despite his head of steam, then slides with him before almost ripping the ball out of his hands. Next, he shuts down every move Giannis tries to make before forcing an airball. It doesn't get any better than this.

But, of course, Giannis is an amazing player and moments like those are rare. What hasn't been rare, however, is Leonard's ability to bother Giannis at the rim when the Bucks star does manage to get there. Shots that Giannis has made look easy all season long are now clanging off the rim because Leonard is bothering him.

A true team effort

For as good as Leonard has been, and he's been tremendous, what really takes the Raptors over the top in terms of slowing down Giannis is their depth. The Celtics had Al Horford, who did a solid job, but if he was out of the game, or there was a switch, there was nothing the Celtics could do. Toronto, however, has the likes of Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka as secondary defenders. Those two might not be quite as good as Leonard defensively, but there's little drop-off on switches, and they can hold their own one-on-one when Leonard is out of the game.

"[Giannis] is one of the best in the game, and we know it's tough," Ibaka said after Game 5. "But the only thing in my mind is if he's going to score on me, I have to make sure he works, that he has to give me his best move. Sometimes it's tough, but hey, we got guys man… The only thing in my mind is to make sure that every basket he's gonna score, he has to earn that."

In addition, the Raptors have done an excellent job making sure Giannis sees multiple bodies. Just look at what awaits Giannis when he tries to drive into the paint, both in transition and in the halfcourt. Try as he might to force his way through, there's nowhere for him to go. (Two of the three plays shown in the screenshots below wind up as turnovers.)

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The Raptors forming a wall in the halfcourt. Giannis turned the ball over.
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The Raptors forming a wall in transition
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The Raptors forming a wall in transition. Giannis turned the ball over.

Furthermore, the Raptors have also doubled Giannis at times to try and force the ball out of his hands. It's yet another look they can throw at him, and they've had some success springing the double teams on him.

Staying in the play without fouling

To a lesser, but still important extent, the Raptors have also slowed Giannis down by playing strong defense and contesting without fouling.

In the Bucks' four wins against the Celtics last series, Giannis got to the line for 55 free throws, making 40 of them. That trend continued in Games 1 and 2 of this series, as Giannis went 9-of-12 from the line in the Bucks' two wins.

Since then, however, he's averaging just 8.6 free throws per game. It definitely hasn't hurt that he's shooting 46 percent on those attempts, but the more important aspect for the Raptors is that they're not allowing him to get there in the first place.

Now, you can make an argument that he should be getting to the free throw line more, and Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer certainly believes he's deserving.

"Yeah, I mean, it just feels like he should be at the free throw line more," Budenholzer said. "You know, they have a couple of guys that are veterans that are very crafty that seem to get there a lot, Lowry when he drives, you've got to be incredibly disciplined. He creates a lot of contact and is rewarded for it. Giannis creates a lot of the same contact and doesn't seem to get the same whistle, get the same reward."

But the fact of the matter is he hasn't been getting there, and it's due to how well the Raptors are defending him.

"Just being ourselves, take pride in the match-ups that presents us," Leonard said of the Raptors' defensive approach. "We want to be a good defensive team. That's what we look at in film and everybody comments or has something to say that's knowledgeable to try to make our defense better, and we go into the game and try to execute it as best we can."

In regards to defending Giannis, the Raptors have executed to near perfection on the defensive end in the past three games. Now, the potential MVP has to solve it two games in a row, or his team will be going home. 

NBA Writer

Jack Maloney lives and writes in Milwaukee, where, like the Bucks, he is trying to own the future. Full Bio

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