Kawhi Leonard is having a tremendous amount of success as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s primary defender since he switched onto him in Game 3. The Toronto Raptors have won three straight since that move; in 112 possessions against Leonard, Giannis has only made nine baskets.
Of course, Leonard’s stranglehold wouldn’t be possible without a disciplined, team-wide gameplan. A “Giannis stopper” is as mythological as a fire-breathing dragon, and matching up against Antetokounmpo on an island is an invitation for catastrophe.
No NBA player has spent more time trying to slow Giannis down over the past two seasons than Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young. Over that span, Young has guarded Giannis on 351 possessions. (Marvin Williams is second to Young, having defended Antetokounmpo on 235 possessions). Giannis made 52.3 percent of his shots with Thad on him, a tick below his overall field goal percentage of 55.2 percent since the start of the 2017-18 season.
The two have battled. Earlier this season, Young helped hold Antetokounmpo to 12 points on just six field goal attempts. The next time they squared off, that point total spiked to 33.
“Thaddeus Young, he’s a great guy. Amazing player. Amazing teammate. Plays hard,” Antetokounmpo said when asked about the matchup. “But, you know, and I don’t want to sound arrogant and cocky, because that’s not who I am, but I don’t think there’s one guy who can stop me. It’s got to be the whole team effort. They got to load. They got to double-team me. When I get to the paint, they got to swarm at me. That’s the only way. They have to all work together to stop me from making plays. Not getting points. From making plays. But Thad is a great defensive player and I love playing against him.”
I called up Young a few hours before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to ask him about dealing with one of the NBA’s most difficult and unprecedented problems.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SB Nation: Let’s start with a quick check up on the Eastern Conference Finals. What are you seeing when you watch how the Raptors have guarded Giannis in this series?
Thaddeus Young: They’re just making him play in crowds. They’re loading to the ball and forcing the other guys to make shots. They’re saying, ‘If we’re gonna get beat, he’s not gonna beat us going to the rim.’
Obviously with him having the ball in his hands and being able to attack in transition so much, he’ll be able to sneak by and overpower and outmatch some guys. But for the most part, [the Raptors] have done a good job of keeping bodies in between him and making sure he sees multiple guys each and every time. And they have a lot of big bodies they can throw at him also.
SB: What’s your personal experience when you wake up in the morning on a game day against the Bucks, knowing you’ll be spending a ton of time on Giannis?
TY: The first thing is containing him and praying and hoping those guys don’t hit shots on that day [laughs]. Because, obviously, it’s never just a one man effort on a guy like him. It’s always gonna be a group effort. I think that’s why the teams that beat them or are very successful against him are the teams that play great team defense. We were a top-five defense in the league for the whole year and that’s simply because we all play structured team defense, we help each other, and were always there for each other.
But when you wake up and know you’ve got that type of matchup with him – I was telling [Pacers center Myles Turner] before we played the Bucks one game that, ‘I’m gonna be honest with you, this is probably the only guy I’ve got to sit here and watch film and prepare three or four days in advance for. [laughs].’ Just simply because, he attacks you and he attacks you in so many different ways. You have to figure out what you’re gonna give up—which is probably the jump shot, obviously—but the space that you do give up, he eats that space up. And he tries to overpower and outmatch you, and outphysical you. So you have to have some type of strength and play closer to him than the average guy who you think can’t shoot, because he eats up so much space.
But you also have to have your pick-up point. I think that’s where I’ve been able to have some success, at a high pick-up point with him.
SB: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “pick-up point”?
TY: Pick-up points are areas on the court where you know you can pick up a guy and take him to a different spot on the court, or pick up a guy and stop him from imposing his will as far as driving to the basket. So with a guy like Giannis, his pick-up point might be one step inside the free-throw line.
Another thing that I always try to do is try to catch either his first step if he’s catching the ball in a stand-still position, or [if] he’s going in transition, trying to catch his first move. He usually throws the ball in front of him and [Euro Steps] the opposite way. So it’s like a throw in front, step, and catch the ball, and then Euro the other way.
So I try to catch that first step, and try to cut him off to the point where he can’t take another step or make another move.
SB: Did you figure that out from watching film, or is it more just off the first-hand experience of playing him as often as you have?
TY: It’s a combination of both. When you see a guy so much, you start to learn tendencies. Then, when you’re watching a game tape, you have to learn his tendencies, you have to learn what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are. We all know his strengths are posting up and driving the ball in, mainly, transition, and seeing guys for kick-outs when you double team and stick your hands in there, and stuff like that.
But the biggest thing for me is always trying to keep my body in front of him and making him spin. See multiple hands, see multiple guys, and he’ll come up off the ball. Then, they’ll run some other type of offense.
SB: This is kind of a strange question, but how does your body feel after a game defending Giannis?
TY: Nah, I mean. I’m good [laughs]. Myles always tells me I won the genetic lottery. So for the most part I feel good every time I get done playing a game.
But I think it’s mainly because I’m one of those guys who really takes care of his body. I get in the cold tub and do the treatment, and the ice, and the massages, and everything like that. Just so I don’t have to worry about the wear and tear during the season. Obviously everybody has it but you want to minimize that and keep it at a minimal through the course of a season.
SB: But do you feel more sore than normal against Giannis? His physicality seems unique, just how often he’ll put his head down and plow his shoulder into your chest.
TY: No, like, these are the moments that you train for in the summer and train for throughout the course of the year. I spend a lot of time in the weight room and keeping myself strong and ready for those type of contests. So no, I don’t feel different or anything like that.
I think when my body starts to wear and tear and when things start to hurt is when you’re having three games in four nights and five in seven nights, those type of stretches. I think it’s more about those periods, where you’re having a lot of games and tough matchups, as opposed to one single matchup.
SB: You might’ve already answered this question but can you describe the general scouting report you try to execute when defending Giannis? There are obvious things you want to do, but what is something a fan watching on TV wouldn’t know?
TY: [laughs] I mean the whole world basically sees it! It’s not rocket science. It’s very simple. You take your chances with the [other] guys making shots, which they’ve done all season long, and that’s why they’re in the position they are now. They have solid guys on their team that can really, really play. I’ve had the luxury of playing with one of those guys, and that’s Brook Lopez. He’s tearing it up right now.
But like I said, it’s not rocket science. You see what you have to do and you see what you have to give up in order to try and succeed on that level. That’s making him shoot jump shots and living and dying by jump shots, but also making a wall in transition and see multiple bodies and multiple guys. Then, when he makes those kickouts, try to get him to loft the ball out to those guys, so that way you’re putting yourself in a better position to close out. But if he’s whipping those passes, which he does most of the time, then it’s gonna be a difficult game.
But we all know that every team is a beatable team if you’re playing the right defense and you’re having a good night.
SB: Is communication with your teammates more important when up against the Bucks?
TY: Communication is key throughout the whole course of the season. I think that’s why we were so good defensively. Our communication level, especially when [Victor Oladipo] went down, was even more key because of what we were trying to do. Communication is definitely key, especially guarding a guy like Giannis, when they have Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez, and [Nikola] Mirotic, and [Ersan] Ilyasova.
SB: Giannis is so tricky to stop because he can also set a ball screen and create huge problems without the ball in his hands. What are you supposed to do when, say, Eric Bledsoe has the ball on the wing and Giannis races up to set a pick?
TY: Well, with [Blesdoe], he’s not a guy who shoots the jumper a lot.
Usually with guys who are able to shoot the jumper, we either switch it or blitz and show real hard and get back, so we can get the guard through to get back under the screen and get back in front of the ball. But with Giannis we’re more, ‘Let’s get in the drop position,’ get the guard back in front of the ball, and then it’s a throwback. Giannis will pop behind, they’ll throw the ball back, and then you close out slow and just try to contain the dribble.
And like I said, in those situations, I try to catch the first step to get him to spin, and then hopefully we have hands and guys at the elbows who go in for the steal or get him to pick the ball up.
SB: You’ve mentioned the spin move a couple times now. Just how difficult is that to stop and what’s going through your mind as it happens? When do you know it’s too late?
TY: When he gets to the spin move, it’s too late when he’s under the basket [laughs]. I think that’s one of the biggest things for sure.
But I think that’s what a lot of teams want him to do. His length and the Euro is so deadly, you have to figure out what’s going to slow him down. Him going to the spin move actually slows him down where you can actually get him to turn the ball over or impede his progress and make passes.
SB: What was more difficult about defending him this year compared to last? Is it just the addition of more shooters around him, or is there any way he improved himself?
TY: I think he’s a little bit more tenacious than he was last year. Each and every year, he’s gotten more and more aggressive. More and more stronger. Adjusting to the game. And the last couple years, he’s really realized how much he can elevate his game and how much he can take it to the next level. I think his focus and determination is like no other. He’s done a really good job of that.
But I think one of the biggest aspects of the game that’s made it much more difficult for him to be guarded is, like you said earlier, the addition of shooters and a different structured system. When they had [former coach Jason Kidd], he did a phenomenal job of showcasing Giannis’s talent, but, you know, it was just Giannis. You know what I’m saying? Now, Coach [Mike Budenholzer] has kind of expanded the talent of the team along with Giannis. Like, it’s not just him. They’re all doing it together. They’re all locked in. They’re all making shots, and they have a free-flowing offense. One guy attacks, drive and kick, next guy, drive and kick. They all make plays for each other and they feed off each other’s energy.
SB: What is different about guarding Giannis as opposed to everyone else you’ve matched up against over the years. Is he the most difficult one-on-one cover you’ve dealt with in your career, or does anyone else come to mind who’s been an even bigger headache?
TY: Man. I mean now he’s probably one of the toughest guards, but before him? I’m going to definitely say Carmelo Anthony. As a matter of fact, I think somebody else was asked this question and they said the same thing, and I was thinking the same thing in my mind, like, Jesus, Carmelo Anthony was a problem. [laughs].
TY: Dre did say that! And when we played together [in Philadelphia], we split time on Carmelo. So, like, that was a help.
I think Dre said he was a fat guy that actually had quickness and could hoop. I was thinking the same thing in my mind, like, he was a bowling ball. Like he hits you, he’s gonna be physical with you, and he’s gonna try and go through you to get shots off. And he’s quick, so you have to pick and choose what you’re gonna do. Are you gonna crowd him? If that doesn’t work, then you have to figure out if you’re gonna dig, back up, and give him a step. But he had a jumper! So there were just so many different things that he could do, as far as his game was set up.
SB: Bringing it back to Giannis then, what would you even do if and when he becomes someone you have to worry about from the outside?
TY: That would definitely be tough, but I think I would still take my chances with the jump shot.