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Celtics defense will live and die with Khris Middleton

In a pivotal Game 5, the Celtics decided to defend the Bucks’ most complete scorer straight up.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Through five games, Milwaukee’s best player and one the Eastern Conference’s brightest stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has seen his field goal attempts fluctuate through the series. He’s shot 21, 17, 13, 20 and a Round 1 low of just 10 in Game 5. Head coach Joe Prunty has vowed to get his best Buck more looks and Giannis himself admits that “it’s on me. As I said, I had open shots, but they wasn’t my shots, so I didn’t feel comfortable to take them.”

Khris Middleton, on the other hand, didn’t struggle to chuck up his quota. Milwaukee’s most complete scorer had 21 field goal attempts on Tuesday night with a majority of them in the mid-range. He hit two late game three pointers that inflated his 23 points but in general, the Celtics did a good job keeping him in check. He was a miserable 5-for-14 between the arc and the restricted area, a shooting performance that Boston will happily live with.

He’s the poison that Stevens has picked to swallow. Despite Middleton’s scoring ability, the Celtics rarely double him and rely on single coverage to contest his shots, even if there’s a distinct size advantage. So many times in the game, the Bucks, to their credit, forced switches for Middleton so he was being guarded by the smallest defender on the court. That usually meant whatever point guard was on the floor and for a stretch in the second quarter, he roasted Shane Larkin and Marcus Smart on the baseline or low block.

On those clear outs, Boston doesn’t send a help and more or less, the other four defenders stay home on their cover. Stevens is making an analytics gamble here. Even though an offensive player might have a few inches on their defender, the numbers say that a player in isolation, particularly with his back to the basket, makes for a low quality shot attempt in addition to not involving the rest of the team. For what it’s worth, Middleton scored 0.98 points per possession in post ups. That ranked him in the 79.4 %tile. By comparison, the Bucks who are not a good perimeter shooting team, averaged 1.00 ppp on spot up shots. Middleton carried the offense in stretches of the first half, but for the Celtics, that’s fool’s gold in terms of the bigger picture.

Notice again how all the other Celtics stay glued to their man. That play may seem like everything is riding on Jayson Tatum’s defense on Middleton, but with the shot clock running down, think of it as Boston daring Middleton to take that shot because ultimately he has to. No one is going to give him an avenue to pass. Turn up the volume, too. You can hear Smart calling out “right hand, right hand, right hand!” for Tatum to shade over. Smart’s just egging on a bad shot and acting as a cheerleading double agent.

You can see how doubling Middleton compromised Boston’s D above. Smart played a lot of free safety/center fielder on Tuesday night and finished with three big blocks. He flashes on to Middleton--maybe because Middleton gets deep position on Larkin or maybe he’s just trying to vary their coverage--but Middleton quickly gets the ball out and eventually it finds himself for an easy layup. It’s a good example of how ball movement can take advantage of the slightest overplay.

With Stevens thowing Milwaukee a loop by starting Semi Ojeleye for Aron Baynes and going small, the Bucks could counter with Jabari Parker at tip off. That could cause a ripple effect where Middleton doesn’t find himself in (what he thinks are) favorable match ups and takes fewer shots. Regardless, the Celtics have never been much of a trapping team and while they’re throwing two and sometimes three players at Antetokounmpo, look for more single coverage on Middleton.

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