Remember this scene in Game of Death when Bruce Lee is advancing up the temple fighting every boss and finally faces Kareem Abdul Jabbar on the third floor?
The Celtics are Bruce Lee and the Bucks are (ironically, former Buck) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Since February 8th, the Bucks have been devastatingly good when they’re on their game. They’re 18-7 since losing Jabari Parker and getting back Kris Middleton on the same night against the Heat. The Celtics have been 16-8 during that same stretch. The Celtics had beaten the Bucks once before back in late January without Avery Bradley and Al Horford, but the loss on Wednesday in the Garden with the team at full strength should be a wake up call, especially if the Celtics face the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. Jason Kidd has made some bold moves this season—removing Greg Monroe from the starting lineup and inserting rookie phenom Malcolm Brogdon as the starting point guard—and Milwaukee is the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.
Boston and Milwaukee are a contrast of styles, body types, and philsophies. The Celtics want to fly around on both sides of the ball, creating havoc with their ball movement to score and flustering offenses with their quickness on the perimeter on defense. The Bucks are longer than most teams, so everything is geared to take advantage of their size mismatch, including running their offense from the post and elbow and shrinking the court by trapping and overloading the strong side.
At halftime of Wednesday night’s loss to Milwaukee, assistant coach Jay Larranaga talked about the Bucks being an “overhelp team” and how the Celtics would have to be able to swing the ball to the weak side to generate offense. That’s easier said than done with the height advantage the Bucks have.
They’ll hedge on pick-and-rolls and force teams to go over their defense. With their length, they’ll make that cross court pass difficult.
In the first quarter from Wednesday, you can see how hard it is for Boston to move the ball for an open shot. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a praying mantis out there with his 7’4 wingspan. Avery Bradley’s pocket pass to Al Horford has to be right on the money and Horford’s cross court kick out to Isaiah is risky with Kris Middleton patrolling the weak side.
But if the ball movement is clicking and penetration can hit the paint, the Celtics should get a ton of open looks. In the loss, Boston shot 37 threes and made only 12. Back in January, the Celtics shot 41 threes in the overtime win back in January. They’ll get their looks and it’ll just be a matter of making open shots.
It’s against teams like this where Al Horford’s versatility will be key to Boston’s success. Because Al can put the ball on the floor and act as a playmaker, he’ll not only be asked to shoot the open three, but he’ll also need to dribble drive and find the open shooter.
However, offense just won’t come from guys like Horford or Thomas drawing the attention of the defense. After halftime, Boston ran a lot more off ball action to free up players for better looks. Instead of letting Milwaukee trap the ball or double and triple team IT as a ball handler, Stevens called up sets where ball movement was replaced by a series of screens to find guys open and close to the rim.
They’ll need to do plenty of that if Milwaukee starts keying in on Thomas.
Milwaukee’s length is going to be an issue on defense, too. The Bucks are in the 93rd percentile in post ups, generating 0.95 points per possession. They may only go to it 8% of the time, but with their size advantage over the Celtics, it’s going to be a bigger piece of their offense. Taller teams with passing bigs like Denver with Nikola Jokic and San Antonio with Pau Gasol have killed the Celtics in the half court.
Boston starts the 5’9 Isaiah Thomas, 6’2 Avery Bradley, and 6’6 Jae Crowder vs. the 6’5 Malcolm Brogdon, 6’7 Tony Snell, and 6’11 Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are mismatches even before any defensive switching. On Wednesday night, they immediately went to it after the tip.
What makes defending the post so difficult are the sight lines. Because the offensive player is facing away from the basket and can more easily pass out, defenses are much more susceptible to back door cuts and runs to the rim. The Celtics might be better off in single coverage instead of doubling down.
Of course, there’s also Milwaukee’s Goliath, Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s easy to get caught up with the Greek Freak’s athleticism, but for the most part, the Celtics have been able to keep him in check this season. He’s had two efficient games of 21-7-6 and 22-9-3, but there’s reason for Boston to overreact. A lot of his production has come from random plays like late-in-the-shot-clock pull-up threes, transition buckets, offensive rebounds, and defensive break downs on back door cuts. One-on-one and in the half court, Al Horford and Jae Crowder have been effective against Antetokounmpo.
Outside of the restricted area, Antetokounmpo is 6-for-16 vs. Boston and that includes 4-for-7 from behind the arc where he’s normally a 28.5% three-point shooter. It’s easier said than done, but if Boston can keep him out of the paint and not overreact to a highlight play (like their approach to some of Steph Curry’s shotmaking), they should be able to keep the All-Star in check.
If you watched Wednesday’s game, it’s Malcolm Brogdon that could prove to be Milwaukee’s x-factor. The rookie has good size and speed for a point guard and more importantly, great poise for such a young player. Boston has to be able to neutralize him in the pick-and-roll and force him to the shoot the mid-range jumper. Brogdon is only a 35.7% shooter between the restricted area and the arc; for comparison, Mr. Mid-Range Avery Bradley shoots 42.2%. If you can cut down Brogdon’s penetration, that will also limit how many open looks Tony Snell, Kris Middleton, Jason Terry, and Michael Beasley—all 40%+ three point shooters—get on the perimeter.
In Game of Death, Bruce Lee had to outsmart Kareem to eventually defeat him. He couldn’t out fight him because of Abdul-Jabbar’s reach, but KAJ had a weakness: a sensitivity to light. Bruce Lee punches out the paper screens to let the sunshine in to blind him. The Milwaukee Bucks don’t have as obvious an Achilles’ heel. Boston is just going to have to limit all the random stuff that the Bucks take advantage of because of their length: capitalizing on turnovers, transition offense, and cutting off ball. The Bucks visit Boston in the season finale.