Milwaukee dominated defensively to steal homecourt advantage from Boston
1. “We got punched in the mouth.”
Ime Udoka, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all repeated versions of this phrase following the Boston Celtics Game 1 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The answers were given in response to questions about how Boston reacted to Milwaukee’s physicality.
More simply put: The Celtics are no longer playing the Brooklyn Nets.
After a week or so of getting whatever shots they wanted against Brooklyn, Boston played right into Milwaukee’s hands. The Bucks are going to take away shots in the paint and all but eliminate shots right at the rim. They want you to shoot a bunch of threes. If you make them and win, the Bucks tip their cap and move on, betting you can’t repeat that in the next game.
Boston hit above their season-average for three-point percentage. The problem? 50 of the Celtics 84 attempts were three-pointers. 50! 5-0!
Now, it’s up to Ime Udoka, his staff and the players to figure out how to attack this Bucks defense without simply hoisting three after three. Because, as we’ll cover, Boston’s defensive gameplan largely worked. They held Milwaukee to 101 points on 41.1% shooting. But to win Game 2 and make this a series, the offense has to be better.
2. Slowing down the Bucks offense means slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yes, Antetokounmpo dominated the game, but he had to work to do so. The Celtics actually held him to 9-of-25 shooting and forced him to turn it over five times. Here’s some of the good work Boston did on the former MVP.
This is what we’ll call “Horford and help” because it starts with Al Horford, but ends with good help. Horford does a good job moving his feet to keep Antetokounmpo in front of him. As the shot goes up, Robert Williams is there to contest and make it a difficult attempt:
On this play, Williams does a good job by himself. You have to do everything you can to slow Antetokounmpo down in transition. He’s a one-man transition creator, and he did plenty of that throughout this game. But if you can make him work with some athleticism on him, you can get results like this:
This is Horford doing the work by himself in the halfcourt. We wrote it before the series, but you can’t really stop Antetokounmpo. Your best bet is to slow him down, which is what Horford does here by forcing the contested fallaway:
This is another example of good help. Antetokounmpo has become such a good passer, that you have time your help correctly and you have to send it from the right place. This is a good job by Horford to dig down to force the turnover:
3. On the flip side of the above, if you send help too early or from the wrong places, Giannis Antetokounmpo will get the ball moving or find shooters.
On this play, look how concerned Jayson Tatum is with helping on Antetokounmpo. He thinks there is some kind of backside switching happening, but it’s not. Bobby Portis slips into the lane, draws the rotation and finds Pat Connaughton for an open three:
This is a terrible double-team decision by Marcus Smart. Robert Williams did a good job here of containing Antetokounmpo. There’s no reason for Smart to help, especially not with the distance he leaves to get back to Grayson Allen:
Similar set for the Bucks. Again, Smart helps, but this time he came too early and he helped off Allen again. This is about knowing time, spot and personnel. Giannis isn’t in a spot to really hurt Boston here. Smart comes as he picks up his dribble, which allowed Antetokounmpo the time to find Allen with ease:
4. You have to live with a lot of the above, because Giannis Antetokounmpo is so good. What you can’t do it is make life easy for Milwaukee. And Boston did plenty of that with sloppy play.
The Bucks feast on live-ball turnovers. This is a bad, forced pass from Jaylen Brown and the result is Jrue Holiday knocking in a pullup three:
Why Derrick White is picking up his dribble here is a mystery. This another example of bad ballhandling and sloppy passing:
At first watch, it seems like this breakdown is on Derrick White, but he’s actually the one who reacts and tries to make a play. Who is Jayson Tatum guarding here? Grant Williams has the inbounder, Daniel Theis has Brook Lopez, White has Pat Connaughton and Payton Pritchard has Jevon Carter. Tatum is supposed to be guarding Wesley Matthews, but look where he is. He’s guarding…air? A ghost? A spot he thinks the ball will go to? By the time Antetokounmpo lobs it in, White realizes what has happened, but he’s too late to fix it:
5. Let’s stick with the sloppy theme for one more takeaway. Boston had 18 turnovers, which is way too high to hope to win a playoff game. Milwaukee converted those into 27 points. That is a massive number.
To add to it, the Bucks outscored the Celtics 28-8 in fastbreak points, a lot of that off turnovers. In total transition buckets, the best estimate here is Milwaukee led Boston 44-18.
Essentially, in a game where the Celtics did a really good job in their halfcourt defense, the Bucks got way too many easy buckets. That has to clean up moving forward, or this won’t be much of a series.
6. Let’s flip to the other side of the floor…yes, we have to. Sorry!
Boston shot 28-of-84 for the game, or 33.3%. They were 18-of-50 from deep, which isn’t bad percentage-wise, but, whew boy, is that a lot of threes.
Now for some math…the Celtics were a horrendous 10-of-34 or 29.4% on two-pointers. Look at this shot chart:
That’s more red on the floor than the end of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Once you tear your eyes away from all the red X’s, look at what’s missing. Find it yet? Midrange shots. Just three shots attempted that weren’t in the paint or behind the arc.
To beat the Bucks, you have to make their defense work against them.
Yes, you’re going to take a lot of threes, but you need to make them. According to NBA tracking data, the Celtics were 16-of-45 or 35.5% on three-pointers classified as open to wide-open. That’s not horrible, but it’s below their average for both the regular season and the playoffs.
Boston was also well below-average at the rim and in the paint. That’s glaringly obvious. That will come up some, but it will only come up some. The Bucks are designed around not giving up easy stuff inside.
That leaves the midrange. Yes, modern basketball is comprised of shots at the rim or three-pointers. But there’s all sorts of room to beat the Bucks in the middle. Boston just needs to be willing to take and make those shots with good midrange shooters like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Payton Pritchard. They can’t keep hunting perfect shots while turning down good ones.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
7. Last thing before we close with some stuff that worked in Game 1. The Celtics have to take better advantage of the minutes when Giannis Antetokounmpo sits. Late in the third quarter, Antetokounmpo picked up three fouls in rapid succession. He went out with 3:37 to play in the third quarter after getting called for his fourth foul. Jayson Tatum hit two free throws after the play to draw Boston within six points.
The Celtics went on to lose the rest of the quarter 6-4. Now, two points isn’t much, but scoring only four points with Antetokounmpo out is really poor, and emblematic of Boston’s offensive struggles all game.
When the fourth quarter started, Antetokounmpo was back out there, but he was playing very cautiously. Four of Boston’s first six offensive possessions resulted in Payton Pritchard three-point attempts. He missed all four, the Bucks extended a 10-point lead to 15 points and the game was functionally over.
This isn’t to put it on Pritchard. None of his shots were bad ones. It’s more about the lack of an attacking mindset that the Celtics showed all game long.
8. Al Horford was the Celtics best player in Game 1. He did a lot of good stuff on both ends. We showed you some defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but here’s more of the work Horford put in.
This is a good play to open the scoring. Lots of ball and player movement and a nice find by Jayson Tatum to Horford on the pick-and-pop:
Most of Horford’s defensive work will come against Antetokounmpo, but his ability to hold his own on switches against the Bucks guards is huge too:
Yes, it’s another three, but this is good work to get into the teeth of the Bucks defense by Tatum and Horford here. And it was good to see Derrick White knock in a couple of longballs too:
9. The Celtics didn’t go at Brook Lopez in the right ways enough. They either avoided attacking him entirely, or they over-drove and went right at him against the rim. That’s not going to work.
This is how you get Lopez. Spread pick-and-roll and get him backing up into the drop coverage:
Again, spread pick-and-roll to get Lopez moving backwards:
The above shot was the last successful trip Boston had going against Lopez in drop coverage. They missed a three-pointer a couple of plays later and never went back to this action again. It’s there and it’s going to be there whenever Lopez is in the game. Eventually, the Bucks will cheat up, but that’s when things start to open up inside. It’s up to the Celtics to force that to happen.
10. On the positive side, Boston’s defense was really good in Game 1. Nothing that they did is truly unsustainable, minus Giannis Antetokounmpo will shoot better moving forward. But it’s also fair to bet that some of Milwaukee’s role players won’t shoot quite as well next time out.
On the negative side, the Celtics were sloppy on offense all game. This looked like the 2021 Boston team that was disconnected and made little effort to play together as a team. There were way too many turnovers, breakdowns and firing the first available shot, good or bad.
On the “Who knows?” side, the Celtics should shoot better in Game 2. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were a combined 10-of-31. The Bucks physicality on defense impacted the two of them more than anyone else, and both players said as much postgame. They should be better prepared for that in Game 2.
Sticking with “Who knows?”, Boston’s role players should shoot much better. Grant Williams, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard combined to shoot 6-of-20 in Game 1. Maybe the moment is too big for them, but this just seemed like an off night.
In Game 2, the Celtics need to repeat their defensive effort, while cleaning up a few of the breakdowns (over-helping, miscommunications and lack of situational awareness). On offense, they need to make more shots (easier said than done), but they also can’t play so much into what the Bucks want on that end.
Series are about adjustments. Boston didn’t have to make many in the first round. Now, they have to. It’s up to Ime Udoka to find the right ones and for the Celtics to execute them.
Game 2 is Tuesday, May 3 at 7:00 PM ET on TNT.