Following a 120-106 drubbing at home over the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston finds itself up 2-0 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It was reasonable to assume that the Celtics’ offense would struggle at times without Gordon Hayward on the floor. It was even more reasonable to think that Kyrie Irving’s knee surgery would finally be the blow this team couldn’t overcome.
In the first two games of the series against the Bucks, Brad Stevens has managed to put his remaining players in position to generate good shots and capitalize on their opponents mistakes.
In Game 1 on Sunday they struggled at times to hold on to the ball, committing 15 turnovers in the overtime win while stagnating on the offensive end when Milwaukee upped their pressure with some rare switching. They shot 41% from the field and still won, leaving some room for improvement heading into their next game.
Tuesday was a different story. The Celtics got whatever they wanted on offense in Game 2. They only committed seven turnovers while their lead ball handler, Terry Rozier, has yet to give one away. They shot 53% from the floor, closing the door on a Bucks comeback. We’ll take a look at how they attacked Milwaukee in Game 2 and what the Bucks did to make it a little easier.
The Celtics aren’t known as a great offensive rebounding team, but have taken full advantage of Milwaukee’s 29th ranked rebounding percentage. In two games this series, the Celtics have grabbed 20 offensive rebounds. Watching the Bucks in these games looks eerily similar to Boston from last year, but it’s fun to be on the other end of it.
For a team whose best scorers are sidelined with injuries, grabbing offensive rebounds helps generate easy points and open shots off of kick outs. Wide open looks from three are never a bad thing, plus it’s pretty demoralizing in a playoff setting to give up so many second-chance points.
The problem you sometimes run into when crashing the offensive glass is leaving your transition defense vulnerable. One of the primary focuses Stevens’ has deployed in this series is to limit Antetokounmpo’s as well as the rest of the Bucks’ fast break opportunities, but if you look back at the clips above, Boston has been able to succeed on the offensive glass with one person crashing.
It’s likely that the Bucks make it a point of emphasis to keep the Celtics off the offensive glass by either changing up their personnel or having more players hit the defensive glass. For the Celtics, the Bucks going bigger should allow for more favorable matchups in the front court, and if the Bucks sacrifice their transition game to secure more rebounds it takes away one of their core strengths.
While the Bucks have found success in this series when they get out and run, the Celtics have done well pushing the ball on the break as well. Whether it’s off of a turnover or a long miss, Boston has a number of players who can handle the ball themselves and force the Bucks into a scramble on the other end.
The Bucks have not done a good job of communicating in these situations, but one of their biggest issues is the fact that in most cases players are jogging back into the play, making it even easier on the Celtics by giving them a numbers advantage.
Transition isn’t the only area where the Bucks fail to talk. They had plenty of bad breakdowns on defense in the half court too.
The way the Celtics are connected on the defensive end in their rotations and switches is almost a polar opposite to the Bucks. On one play, Shane Larkin is able to drive by his man with a straight line to the basket. Nobody talked, so Larkin had a layup line type of finish.
With the pick and roll play, it was executed perfectly as Tatum and Monroe both screened for Larkin. Tatum stayed on the wing as Monroe rolled to the hoop for an open dunk. Henson switched on to Larkin but Eric Bledsoe was already trailing him off the two screens. It’s a tough play to defend, but the Bucks didn’t do themselves any favors here. This shouldn’t be the hardest thing to fix if you’re the Bucks, but Stevens’ misdirection sets highlight communication issues more than others.
This probably comes as a surprise to no one who has watched a Stevens-led Celtics team, but Boston had great spacing in Game 2. They moved the ball swiftly on the perimeter and made the necessary kick outs on drives and off of offensive rebounds. The Celtics then took advantage of the open lane, especially Brown.
There isn’t anyone who on the Bucks who can consistently stop Brown on the drive. He’s stronger than the likes of Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe, while being able to blow by Jabari Parker and John Henson. Antetokounmpo has had his hands full with Horford, so the Celtics haven’t had to deal with that matchup as much.
With the spacing on the floor, Brown has been able to overpower Milwaukee’s wings on the drive, or blow by a switching big like you see above. Brown is making a living in this series inside, giving him the confidence to torch Milwaukee from three. He’s averaging 25 points per game in the first two games, and it’s hard to see him slowing down with the way Boston spaces the floor.
This will be tough for the Bucks to adjust to if Brown continues to attack the rim the way he has. Keeping the floor spread neutralizes the Bucks’ length on defense, so on plays where Tatum gets a screen from Monroe with him rolling to the basket, all the rookie has to do is figure out where Monroe’s defender will commit since his man is still recovering from the screen.
With the Celtics gaining an advantage by keeping the floor spaced, crashing the offensive glass and pushing the ball in transition, the Bucks can’t afford to be lazy on defense. Yet, there were many instances Tuesday night, especially with Jabari Parker, where Milwaukee defenders were going through the motions.
Two of the plays shown feature Parker barely getting in to Brown’s air space as he comes off of a screen. The Celtics are able to get the more active defender in Brogdon switched off to put the defensively challenged Parker in the middle of the action. The third play shows Snell acting as a turn-style for Brown’s drive to the hoop. If the Bucks hope to win even one game in this series, this kind of laziness can’t continue.
The Celtics were apparently the most attractive team for the lower seeds to face in the first round following all of the injuries. After two games, Boston has given it to the Bucks on both ends of the floor without much resistance outside of Antetokounmpo and Middelton.
Milwaukee has to adjust in a series where they’re clearly at a tactical disadvantage. As the Celtics head into the Bradley Center for Game 3, they should expect their opponent to increase their physicality.
Everything is pointing towards the Bucks making the series more of a brawl. They haven’t found an answer for the Celtics’ offense, they’re playing lack luster defense on relatively unproven Boston scorers, and they have the length to create problems if they’re allowed to get physical. This is not to mention Bledsoe’s mysterious ignorance to Rozier’s existence.
The Celtics will have to maintain their poise and not get too far away from the things that got them their 2-0 lead, but I would expect this series to take a different turn if Milwaukee realizes Stevens has them figured out by now.