Before Game 1’s tip off, much had been made of Milwaukee’s across-the-board freakish length. It starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s seven-foot wingspan and his band of Elwood Blueses and no Jakes. Seeing the Bucks starting lineup of 33 feet and and two inches can seem daunting, like a thicket of woods you have to cross to get home with daylight waning.
During a 90-second stretch to start the second quarter, we saw the Bucks’ length in full display. The usually reliable Shane Larkin had only 33 turnovers in 775 minutes in the regular season; against the Bucks in three consecutive plays, he racked up three ugly ones (4 for the night) that helped cut a double digit lead to a two possession game.
It wasn’t just the turnovers in the first half that stifled Boston’s offense. Milwaukee’s length also affected what shots got generated by Boston’s read-and-react system. Use the image slider above to compare the first and second half shot charts from Game 1. The Celtics only made two more field goals in the second half than they did in the first, but they got better looks, particularly in the half court. The Celtics settled for the mid-range early, running their typical wing attack sets with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris accounting for 36 of Boston’s 44 FGA’s. With the Bucks packing in the paint and daring Boston to either shoot over the defense or take contested shots at the rim, Boston obliged.
That changed after halftime.
The Bucks are not a particularly good defensive team, but because of their length and aggressiveness, opposing offenses sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. Their size is intimidating. So what do you do when you fear something? I’m not sure that this is exactly in Brad Stevens’ growth mindset handbook, but they faced it head on and drew Milwaukee even closer. Instead of trying to face up and attack Milwaukee’s wall of defenders, the Celtics played out of the post and predominately through Al Horford.
Leave it to the enigmatic Janos to come up with the Game 1 insight:
Here’s more relevant information from Keith on the Horford Effect:
According to @bball_ref: Today Al Horford became the first player in history to have as many as 24 points, 13 made free throws, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks while attempting 8 or fewer FGs in an NBA playoff game.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) April 15, 2018
Basketball can be funny. If you’re dribbling up the court and facing the basket, your defender will afford you some space because you’re a triple threat. You can either shoot, dribble, or pass. Now, if you turn around and start backing your defender down, it changes the entire dynamic. Almost illogically, defenders will play you even tighter even though you’re in a less advantageous position to be a threat. It’s one of the basic tenants of the triangle offense.
With Horford playing point center and Marcus Morris as a small 4, Boston was able to somewhat invert the floor and use their bigs above the break or in the post as playmakers. Like a boxer with a shorter reach, it drew the Bucks’ front court defenders like Giannis and John Henson closer to them and away from the basket.
Note that Horford isn’t getting the ball deep on the low block or in the paint. He gets the ball at the free throw line. He can pound it in there if he likes (which he did several times against Giannis and got to the line a whopping 14 times), but he’s starting 10-15 feet away from the basket so that he can see the entire floor and open up multiple driving lanes from multiple angles.
With a double team coming from John Henson because of the mismatch with Tony Snell, Horford easily finds the flashing Brown and Aron Baynes seals Khris Middleton. You can see how much work is being done primarily by the bigs. Those trees that the Celtics’ wings had trouble getting around in the first half are being cut down by Boston’s lumberjacks.
Here’s just another great example of the Celtics working in tighter spaces with Horford as the primary playmaker. With all the screens and actions, the Bucks are constantly being forced to make decisions. Should I got under a screen? Should I switch on a cross pick? Conventionally speaking, David would want to be some distance away from Goliath to hit him with a stone and a sling shot, but up close, David (or Jaylen in this case), can just get him on his hip and drive baseline.
Finally, what really opened up with Horford in the mid-post was the two-man game between him and Morris. In all three of these drives, Horford doesn’t even touch the ball, but the threat of him getting it deep in the post is enough to suck in his defender. It’s such simple basketball for Mook after that. He pump fakes, gets passed his defender, and he’s at the rim with Horford setting brush screens and/or gaining position for an offensive rebound.
For good measure, here’s the first bucket in OT: Horford again posts, there’s screen action off the ball, and the ever present Al makes the right read and finds Jaylen for the easy lay up.
The chess game now begins. In his post game presser, Stevens said that the team was going to “ride Al. He’s been unbelievable at being a facilitator this year. There are moments where he is going to be a feature scorer.” That may seem like a head coach relying on his max player to do max things in the max pressure of the playoffs. It’s not. Like all things Stevens, he’s just finding yet another way to take advantage of mismatches.