The Celtics enter their second-round series against the Bucks as underdogs, and with good reason. Where Boston has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the year, Milwaukee has been reliably dominant. The Bucks tout the league’s likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo – an incomprehensibly long, force of nature who routinely consumes the souls of his opponents via a variety of Eurosteps and spin moves punctuated by thunderous dunks.
Commit enough help to slow down Giannis and he’ll find an open shooter flanking him from beyond the arc. Fail to do so and his primary defender is likely to wind up on his back, with a prime view of Antetokounmpo hanging from the rim. It’s an unsolvable riddle and a primary reason the Bucks finished the year with the NBA’s best non-garbage-time net rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
To suggest that Milwaukee is a formidable opponent is something of an understatement, but Boston has the talent and versatility to make things interesting. The Bucks have a distinctive style of play that has proven to be unmatched throughout the regular season and the first round of the Playoffs. Theoretically their approach has structural weaknesses that the most talented, malleable teams should be able to attack to their advantage.
Boston fits the bill on paper, though in practice the Celtics’ roster has been something of a enigma. Theory is plenty to leave Boston fans intrigued though. Milwaukee may be the favorites here, but not in the same way they were against their first-round opponents - the Sad Boy Detroit Pistons – who truly had no chance. The Celtics have the tools to give the Bucks trouble in a way that only a handful of units throughout the NBA can.
There is a path for them to follow to pull off an upset – one that will need to be navigated deftly, but a possibility nonetheless. Let’s walk down it together. Everything starts with Boston’s ability to turn the Bucks’ defensive identity against in on itself.
Milwaukee walls off the rim extra aggressively on defense, encouraging its bigs – Brook Lopez in particular - to camp out in the paint while sending intense help from the wings to cut off driving lanes. Milwaukee’s opponents took just 30.3% of their total shots at the rim, and made only 57.5% of them, both of which led the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
Such effectiveness in defending the rack doesn’t come without cost, however. The Bucks’ aggressive style leaves them susceptible to surrendering open looks from beyond the arc as help defenders scramble back to their individual assignments. The math of risking open looks from deep to erase any threat of attacking the basket worked out in Milwaukee’s favor throughout the course of the year, but Boston poses a unique conundrum.
The Celtics have enough capable shooters at the big position to throw a wrench into the Bucks’ usual defensive game plan. Take a look at how easily Boston generates an open triple for Al Horford by running a simple pick-and-pop.
The Celtics can get that look any time they want if Milwaukee opts to stick to its typical defensive strategies. Teams don’t typically have it quite so easy when facing the Bucks. Horford is relatively unique in his ability to rain in threes after setting a solid screen. He’s a riddle the likes of which Milwaukee did not have to consistently account for in establishing its regular season defensive schemes. And he’s not Boston’s only threat from beyond the arc with enough size to handle some of the Bucks bigs.
Marcus Morris is more than happy to get up a shot or two (or seven) from distance, and has sufficient girth to spend time defending any of Milwaukee’s front court options. Here he is lining up a similar look from the same action highlighted above.
There are other exploitable components of the Bucks aggressiveness as well. Milwaukee’s tenacity in cutting off forays into the paint frequently turns into open looks from the corners.
These plays may all have the appearance of defensive breakdowns, but they’re not. The Bucks have made a conscious decision to give up open shots that Boston has an ability to make at a higher rate than the majority of the teams they’ve faced this year. The Celtics greatest hope in pulling off an upset comes in exploiting them repeatedly.
Milwaukee could cover up a lot of holes by changing its strategy. The Bucks have the pieces to throw out a versatile enough lineup to simply switch every action the Celtics run, drastically decreasing the number of rotations they would need to make. But doing so would simultaneously reduce Milwaukee’s commitment to protecting the rim, the primary tenet of the defensive identity its been building all year.
Muscle memory matters here, and there is a reasonable case to be made that the Bucks would be foolish to alter their approach after finding so much success this year. The playoffs aren’t always the place for relying on the evidence of the regular season though. Matchups really matter, and Boston has the tools to exploit that reality.
Add in the fact that Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer isn’t known for possessing much post season adaptability, and there is a recipe for success that the Celtics might follow. Picking relentlessly at the structural weak points within the Bucks defense is step one.
Doing so will either bear fruit in the form of easy baskets or force Budenholzer into a chess match with Boston’s leading man, Brad Stevens. It seems a touch crazy to think that such a scenario would be an advantage for Boston given that Budenholzer is likely on the verge of winning Coach of the Year, but Stevens has shown far more acumen for making adjustments within a seven game series. Flattening the odds to make things a battle of the wits and evolving strategy suits the men in green.
Step #2 isn’t quite so easy. Even if the Celtics can successfully leverage the Bucks’ defensive system to their own advantage, they still need to slow down Antetokounmpo on the other end of the court. He’s somehow even bigger and stronger than he was last year, and he’s most assuredly in a better offensive ecosystem.
Gone are lain cloggers of the likes of John Henson and Tyler Zeller. They’ve been replaced by three-point bombers poised to knock down open looks that are the result of the chaos that Giannis creates with the ball in his hands. Milwaukee’s offense is impeccably spaced, and forces opponents to decide between guarding the most unstoppable individual athlete the league has to offer one-on-one or surrendering open threes to legitimate outside threats.
Boston can take some solace in the fact that it has more players with enough strength and quickness to at least get in Antetokounmpo’s way than most. Horford will be key once again. He’s the Celtics best option against Giannis in any high-leverage moment – an incredibly intelligent, unmovable rock with quick feet and long arms.
Stevens will need to be smart about match ups and ensure that he doesn’t task Horford with the Antetokounmpo assignment so frequently that he gets into early foul trouble. Boston can turn to Morris as an alternative, and even test out Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes for stretches. Jaylen Brown is likely a touch too light to take on the job consistently, but he too can spend a few possessions on Giannis in a pinch. The same is true of Gordon Hayward.
Antetokounmpo will feast on them all, even Horford. He’s that good. The Celtics need to accept that fact and trust that every time one of them gets run over and forces Giannis to try an extendo-arm layup instead of a dunk or even just sends him to the line with a solid foul is actually a win. Most teams don’t have enough players with the requisite athleticism to even consistently get bludgeoned without fouling them all out.
The more Boston can stick to shooters the greater odds it has at slowing the Bucks as a whole. That won’t be an easy game plan to stick to if Antetokounmpo is throwing down dunks repeatedly, but the Celtics should trust the math. That’s not to say they should abandon all rotations. Appropriate help is a must, but to keep Milwaukee from scoring enough to pull of an upset will mean trusting their many individual options to take their lumps while everyone else focuses on limiting easy looks from beyond the arc.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here so let’s lay things out in a simple format. The blueprint to an upset is thus:
- Take advantage of Milwaukee’s aggressive defensive style to generate as many good looks from beyond the arc as possible
- Lean on Brad Stevens to win the chess match that ensues if the Bucks shift their approach based on the above
- Run as many big bodies as possible at Antetokounmpo, attempting to keep him from the basket while simultaneously committing to not overcommitting help in an effort to limit the number of looks the Bucks get from deep
- Hope the above works and that Giannis doesn’t render any and all tactical decisions entirely meaningless
- Enjoy the ride