Pero Antic lacks the look of a LeBron-stopper, but he may be Atlanta’s last hope in the Eastern Conference finals…
Think back to June 2013. Before Ray Allen’s prayer brought the Heat back from the grave in Game 6 of the Finals. Before LeBron James had cemented an identity as a winner by capturing his second consecutive NBA title.
There was a point in the 2013 Finals when James appeared to be out of answers. Through the series’ first three games, James was averaging fewer than 17 points per game and Miami trailed 2–1.
In Game 4, James finally solved Kawhi Leonard’s riddles and erupted for 33 points to help tie up the series at 2–2. In Game 5, Gregg Popovich sent James a surprise look defensively, tying a rope to James’ foot and attaching an anchor in the form of the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Frenchman Boris Diaw.
James initially amused by the perceived mismatch. Then confounded. And eventually stymied. Diaw, thought to be overweight and out of shape at the time, actually managed to leverage his mass against James as few had done before. Popovich’s decision to negate James’ strength with extra weight was rewarded, as an inspired Diaw limited James to 1-of-8 shooting from the field.
By consistently giving James a cushion of space, Diaw essentially dared The King to shoot from the perimeter:
And once James started missing, he got rattled and stopped shooting jumper altogether. James tried to use his speed to beat Diaw off the dribble, only to realize Diaw was actually quick enough to cut off James’ driving angles.
Diaw’s size also neutralized James’ playmaking abilities in the pick-and-roll as he was large enough to switch on bigger players.
Now in Cleveland, and up 2–0 to Atlanta, James looks poised to return to the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive season.
On the other end, old Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer has the unenviable task of digging his Atlanta Hawks out of a dire 2–0 deficit without his key offensive spacing weapon — Kyle Korver, who’s been ruled out for the playoffs with a high-ankle sprain.
And with Budenholzer’s best two perimeter defenders also hobbled (DeMarre Carroll) or inactive (Thabo Sefolosha), now’s the time to get creative with assignments on James, or risk a sweep.
In Game 2, Budenholzer used a combination of Carroll, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Mike Scott to try to disrupt James. In traditional basketball theory, those matchups made the most sense, as those in the foresome best matched James’ size and athleticism. However, in practice, none of them were effective: James went for 30 points and 11 assists in a runaway victory.
Budenholzer’s strategy for Game 3 will have to be innovative to throw James off his rhythm. James watches tape religiously and is prepared for the expected. The good news for Atlanta is that there are clues on how to be creative dancing around in NBA.com’s SportVU database.
For example, a well-kept secret about James’ offense in recent weeks is that he’s become increasingly reluctant to drive when matched up against a mobile big man with length and footwook. James has attempted 94 two-pointers from 10 feet or farther from the rim in 12 postseason games. In Game 1, for a recent example, James elected to settle for a long two instead of driving on Al Horford:
James is just 9-for-56 (16.1 percent) on three-point attempts this postseason. He’s also a shocking 23-for-106 (21.7 percent) on all pull-ups. Simply put, he’s in a terrible shooting slump as he’s had to carry a huge portion of the Cavs’ offense with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving struggling with his own injuries.
Using Diaw’s “cushion defense” as a blueprint, the Hawks could theoretically neutralize James from driving with a mobile big man’s size.
Horford certainly is a candidate for the Diaw role, although the Hawks surely would like to keep him near the paint, as he’s their best rebounder and the closest thing they have to a rim protector. Luckily for Budenholzer, there’s another Diaw facsimile on the roster: Antic.
Antic is better known for his basketball intelligence than his physical acumen; as Bill Simmons wrote last season, he looks more like a villain in a Liam Neeson film than a prototypical NBA player. But Antic’s looks are misleading, especially when it comes to his defensive capabilities. Antic’s feet are remarkably quick for a big man, and he consistently has success when he’s switched on to more athletic wing scorers.
In 23 defensive isolation situations during the regular season, Antic held his opponents to scores on fewer than half of the possessions. More times than not, opponents would perceive Antic’s presence on the perimeter as a mismatch waiting to happen, which inevitably led to a forced shot out of the flow of the offense. This phenomenon is best known as “The Steve Novak Effect,” and can be observed with Antic defending Bradley Beal below:
While Antic’s isolation defense isn’t elite, it’s passable. And what Antic lacks in iso prowess, he more than makes up for elsewhere as a defender. Antic is terrific guarding against the pick-and-roll, ranking among the league’s top ten in defensive efficiency for the category:
“We’ve talked all year about Pero,” Budenholzer said. “He’s got a great feel for the game, a high basketball IQ. I think he just understands angles and spacing and verticality and showing his hands. He just takes that challenge, that individual challenge and that individual pride.”
Of all the Hawks who played in more than 60 games, Antic’s 101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks as the best defensive rating on the team.
When asked if he sees parallels between Antic and Diaw’s defensive presence, Budenolzer haltingly acknowledged some resemblance in certain instances:
“There are some (similarities) … Boris has a lot of those same characteristics and qualities,” Budenholzer said, then adding, “There are also some dissimilarities.”
In the only play of the series that Antic has been switched onto James on the perimeter, the Macedonian was called for a blocking foul when replay showed that Antic may have legitimately beaten James to his spot and properly taken a charge as James lowered his shoulder in Game 1.
Antic’s defensive skill-set is not limited to capable isolation containments and masterful pick-and-roll instincts, either. In fact, according to SportVU, Antic ranks as the NBA’s very best post defender, which would also help contain James:
Through two games, conventional measures have left the Hawks ill-prepared to stop James. Hopefully, Budenholzer can draw from his experience in San Antonio with Diaw and see if Antic can help neutralize James. If he does, maybe the Hawks can turn the momentum back toward their favor, at least until Tuesday.
“I think the whole league has prepared for LeBron James for a lot of years and he’s obviously had a lot of success,” Budenholzer said. “Some teams have maybe had some. You’re always learning more, and hopefully you’re as prepared as you can be.”