One of the biggest takeaways from the 2021 NBA playoffs is how important defense can be to a team's championship hopes. The Milwaukee Bucks struggled during the season to live up to their high bar of defensive performances, but were able to turn it on when it mattered most, helping them to win the franchise's first title since 1971.
Indeed, their stars' individual defensive performances dominate this article as we count down the top five displays from the 2021 NBA playoffs.
2021 NBA playoffs' top five defensive performances
Although having one or two elite scorers is integral to a team's success in the postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks made shrewd additions to their already strong defensive unit to help them reach the previously unattainable NBA Finals.
Jrue Holiday came in as the organization parted ways with a plethora of future picks, as did veteran forward P.J. Tucker midseason to add veteran experience and dogged competitiveness. Ultimately, it was the balance they found on both ends of the court that helped them overcome the offensive might of the Brooklyn Nets and the array of scoring talent that the Atlanta Hawks have.
But it wasn't just the Bucks who shone on the defensive end in the 2021 NBA playoffs as we will find out on this list.
#5 Brook Lopez (Game 3, Conference semi-finals)
A large part of the Milwaukee Bucks' success in the 2021 NBA playoffs was down to their elite defensive performances. None more so than their ability to limit the Brooklyn Nets to their seven-game semi-final series.
In game three, with the series tied at one apiece, the Bucks were able to secure a 2-1 lead back on home court after limiting the Nets to just 83 points. While each starter was disruptive on defense, no one had a better defensive rating than Brook Lopez (71). The 33-year-old finished the encounter with 10 defensive rebounds, six blocks and a steal.
Lopez was a key component of the Bucks' stifling defense in the paint. They were able to use their superior size and rebounding to overcome both the Nets and the Suns in the NBA playoffs. He finished the series with the 13th-best defensive rating out of any starter in the conference semi-finals after averaging two blocks per game and allowing just 24.9 points in the paint.
#4 Clint Capela (Game 5, first round)
The Atlanta Hawks were one of the breakout stories of the 2021 NBA playoffs thanks to their array of scoring talent and improved defensive displays. Against the New York Knicks, they put on a defensive masterclass, limiting their opponents to less than 97 points for three games in a row.
A large part of this success was down to Clint Capela's serial rebounding ability and rim protection. During the regular season, Capela topped the league in boards collected per game and against the Knicks' weaker frontcourt options, his dominance continued, averaging 13.4 across five contests.
In game five, the Knicks' two centers, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson, combined for just six points and 12 rebounds. Meanwhile, Capela grabbed 15 boards to go along with his 14 points, two blocks and one steal. He finished the game fixture with a team-best defensive rating of 91 and a box +/- of 9.5.
#3 Patrick Beverley (Game 3, Conference Finals)
Although neither Beverley nor the LA Clippers' 2021 NBA playoffs ended how they would have wanted, he was able to frustrate Devin Booker into some poor shooting performances. Particularly in the Clippers' game three win.
Back on home court and down 2-0, the Clippers held the Suns to just 92 points, while Beverley pestered Booker into shooting at 23% from the field and 14% from downtown. His incessant determination to force Booker into contested shots was key for the Clippers in the series, and while they ultimately fell to the Suns, he helped make it a closer contest than it could have been.
Even in game two, the overriding story from the matchup could have been Beverley's impressive defense of Booker had DeAndre Ayton not put in one of the most memorable game-winning dunks in playoff history. He had limited the Suns star to just 31% of made field-goals and 33% from beyond the arc.
#2 Jrue Holiday (Game 5 NBA Finals)
Jrue Holiday arguably had the best performance of his NBA career in game five of the Finals. As well as a splashy statline of 27 points and 13 assists, the 31-year-old grabbed the game-defining steal with less than 20 seconds to go in a one-point contest before carrying the ball up the court and lobbing it up to Giannis Antetokounmpo for the winning dunk.
Although Holiday had better all-round displays in the 2021 NBA playoffs, this play proved why the Milwaukee Bucks tried so desperately to bring him in prior to the season. His active hands and broad stature make him a nightmare opponent on defense and he was pivotal in frustrating the Suns' backcourt pairing of Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
#1 Giannis Antetokounmpo (Game 6 NBA Finals)
Giannis Antetokounmpo had a performance for the ages in game six of the NBA Finals. Although much of the attention was on his 50 point night, the Greek followed up his clutch block in game four with five blocks in the final contest between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns and grabbed ten defensive rebounds.
Giannis was all over the Suns' offense as he had the championship trophy in his sights and a chance to certify his greatness. He finished with the best defensive rating of any player on the court (94) and a staggering box +/- of 18.9.
In past seasons, NBA fans have been used to Giannis Antetokounmpo's defensive prowess, and while he still finished in the All-Defensive Team of the Year, the Bucks struggled on defense during the regular season campaign. However, in this series in particular, they dramatically stepped up their defensive effort and were spearheaded by Antetokounmpo's length, flexibility in who can guard and rim protection.