CelticsBlog teammate Matt Chin wrote about turnovers being key in the Boston Celtics first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. That point proved prescient, as Boston forced 15 total turnovers to help spark the 120-106 Game 2 victory.
In the regular season, the Bucks ranked second in the NBA, forcing 15.6 turnovers per game. The Celtics were in the lower half of the league, forcing opponents to cough it up 14.1 times a night. Milwaukee spent the first half of the year playing a frenetic, trapping style under Jason Kidd, which caused turnovers. But teams that could beat the traps often got good looks and interim head coach Joe Prunty has dialed back the hectic scheme. Boston, on the hand, prefers to play a relatively conservative style, where the defender keeps the ballhandler in front of them and forces a contested shot. That said, the Celtics are opportunistic when forcing turnovers. They use their length, quickness, and smarts to snag steals.
In Game 2, this was fully on display. Witness this turnover from Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the fourth quarter:
The Bucks space the floor well, leaving Al Horford on an island against Antetokounmpo. Horford’s incredible individual defense stands out as soon as the play starts. Notice the slight angle of his hips. Horford’s turned to make sure Antetokounmpo goes left to his weak hand, but there is no help there, as Marcus Morris has to stay home on Khris Middleton.
Even for a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, guarding Giannis without help is a scary proposition. But Horford knows something most of us probably don’t: Antetokounmpo almost always spins back to the middle when he drives left, which he does as soon as he gets below the foul line. Now, watch everyone else. Morris stays home on Middleton, as he’s the only other guy who hurt Boston in this game. Jayson Tatum sticks with Tony Snell, as the Celtics aren’t giving up a clean three-pointer at this point. Greg Monroe immediately starts to drop to the paint, as he knows Antetokounmpo is spinning back middle. Shane Larkin sees Monroe’s man, Sterling Brown, is diving to the hoop, so he drops off Eric Bledsoe in the corner. By the time Giannis spins, three Celtics are in the paint, making his drop pass to Brown a futile effort.
Malcom Brogdon also had a rough night, as he turned it over four times in total, including three times in the first quarter alone. This clip shows the Celtics defending as a unit:
Larkin gets caught going way over the top of a dribble hand off (DHO) action, but uses his quickness to cut off Brogdon. Brogdon’s initial read is to the strongside corner to Jason Terry, but Tatum uses his pterodactyl-like limbs to take away any passing angle. Morris has stuck with Jabari Parker, taking Parker out of the play. By the time Brogdon picks up the ball, Larkin has caught up and taken away any chance of a layup. This leaves Brogdon two options: kick to Antetokounmpo at the arc or to try and feed John Henson at the rim. As he spins, Guerschon Yabusele takes away the angle to Antetokounmpo and Aron Baynes steps up, blocking out any daylight for a pass to Henson. No one player, minus Larkin’s hustle to get back in the play, makes a tremendous effort. But all five players on the same page and in position. Result: turnover by Brogdon.
This turnover shows and example of how Monroe, not generally known for his defensive impact, made plays all game:
Middleton and Henson run basketball’s most simple action: the pick and roll. Henson screens Morris, but doesn’t get enough of him to really keep Morris out of the play. Tatum digs down, while still using his length to make sure Middleton can’t kick to Terry at the arc. Monroe is the guy who really makes the play though. As soon as the screen is set, he steps right up to the foul line and goes vertical. Middleton appears to be trying to find Brogdon in the corner, but it doesn’t matter. Between Monroe taking away the drive, Tatum digging down and Morris not dying on the screen, Middleton has nowhere to go with the pass. Tatum knocks it free and Monroe recovers.
One last thing on this play: note the score and time. Boston has a 12 point lead and there are only 3 seconds to play in the quarter. By being cognizant of score and time, Monroe knows the right play is to step up. First priority is to not give Middleton the drive or a clean jumper. Second priority to make him execute a high-level play if the Bucks are to score. Maybe Middleton finds Henson, who rolled fairly unencumbered, at the rim for a dunk. But a late quarter dunk in a double digit game, off of what would have been a great pass, isn’t something Boston would stress about at this point in the game.
The last play shows the Celtics taking advantage of something that they took advantage of time and time again when Isaiah Thomas was wearing green:
The inexperienced guard trying to post the smaller player strikes again!
This time around, Larkin plays the role of Thomas. Bledsoe has the ball and he and Larkin are the only players on the right side of the floor. Henson immediately clears out to the opposite dunker spot. Anteokounmpo, Snell and Muhammad are all initially at the arc, before Muhammad flashes inside.
Now look at the Celtics. Do they panic because Larkin is being posted by the bigger Bledsoe? Far from it. They stay home. Monroe even follows Henson across the paint. Boston leaves Larkin on an island for a few reasons. The first is they trust him to hold his ground, just as they trusted IT to do so. Here’s Stevens on Larkin’s defense:
FInd someone who loves you like Brad Stevens loves Shane Larkin's defense: "He can really get into the ball, he directs the ball, he’s very aggressive. He’s small but he’s a hard guy to post. He’s tough. Like, he just has all the qualities of a good defender."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) April 17, 2018
Second is that they know Bledsoe probably only has a handful of successful post-ups in his career. Also, they again know score and time. The Celtics have an 11-point lead and the shot clock is already down to 12 when Bledsoe makes his move. As the play runs, take a quick peek at Antetokounmpo. He’s so confident Bledsoe will score, he has his body turned to run back down the floor on defense. As for the play itself, the inexperienced post player Bledsoe can’t go middle, because Tatum is sitting right there and Yabusele is ready to come over. Larkin holds his ground and forces the baseline spin, where Monroe steps over, which causes Bledsoe to hesitate and ultimately fumble the ball out of bounds.
By defending as a unit with all five guys on the same page, the Celtics were able to force turnovers time and time again, despite not making any truly remarkable plays. It was solid, smart defense. The kind of defense that can carry a limited offensive team to wins. And it is that kind of defense that the Celtics will need in order to make a deeper than expected playoff run.