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Boston comes up short against the NBA’s best: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Bucks

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Boston waged another impressive comeback, but couldn’t get over the hill in Milwaukee

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

1. As Brad Stevens said postgame: this wasn’t a discouraging loss like some of the more recent defeats have been for Boston. In the second half, they played Celtics basketball. So, despite it being Boston’s fifth loss in their last seven games, it’s a lot easier to swallow.

However…Stevens and the Celtics know what works against the Bucks. They did it throughout the regular season in 2018-19 and in Game 1 of the 2019 Playoffs matchup, before everything went off the rails. Then in the first meeting this season, Boston waged a massive comeback for the win. They know they’ve got to press up on ballhandlers on defense and on offense they need to play spread pick and roll. So, that begs the question: Why not start the game that way?

2. The narrative throughout the night was: “Why aren’t the Celtics playing any defense?” and the stats would back that. The Bucks shot 16-of-31 from behind the arc and just under 50% overall. But that’s an overly simplistic approach. Watching the game, Boston was right on most of Milwaukee’s attempts. The Bucks were simply ridiculously hot all game long. This wasn’t a repeat of the Detroit game the night prior. That was bad defense. This was just great offense.

3. As for the Celtics offense? The decision-making at times was bewildering. On this play in transition, the Bucks have everything covered. They’ve got guys back in the paint. They’re where they should be against shooters. Nothing good is coming from this drive from Jayson Tatum, yet he puts his head down and does it anyway:

4. One of the ways you can measure how Boston is playing is to look at their assist-to-basket ratio. If it’s well-north of 50%, the Celtics probably had a good offensive night. If it’s less than 50%, that’s a sign the offense wasn’t functioning how it should. Against Milwaukee, Boston had just 16 assists on 43 baskets. That’s one stat you can look at without even watching the game to know things probably didn’t go well.

5. Why was the assist-to-basket ratio off? Part of it was how Gordon Hayward played/was used. Hayward is Boston’s best playmaker. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are just as good, if not better, at getting to the shots they want. Kemba Walker is a better pure scorer. But none of those three combine Hayward’s ability to make plays for himself as a scorer and to makes plays for others as a passer.

In this loss, Hayward spent the vast majority of the game stationed on the wing or in the corners as a spot-up shooter. Hayward took only 10 field goals, and nine of them were three-point attempts. He also got to the line for four free throws, but one of those was in transition. That means that in the halfcourt offense, Hayward only took two two-point shots all game – one make and one drawn foul. In addition, he had only two assists for the game.

Whether the gameplan was to play through others, or Hayward had a passive night, we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that Boston is better when Hayward is aggressive and a big part of the offensive attack. Using him as a much-worse version of Kyle Korver is a complete waste of his talents, and it does nothing for the Celtics offense.

6. So it wasn’t a very good game for the Celtics bench. They were hammered by the Bucks reserves. But there were glimmers of hope. Semi Ojeleye continued his ability to at least make Giannis Antetokounmpo have to really work on offense. Javonte Green also injected a little life and energy. On this play, Green reads he has Ersan Ilyasova guarding him. Green uses that immense athletic mismatch and drives for the nice floater:

7. Kemba Walker went off. He scored 40 points on 14-of-23 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds, which was the second-highest tally of his career. Walker is a weapon in a lot of ways and his ability to stick the pull-up jumper is huge against Milwaukee. The Bucks primarily play drop coverage with Brook Lopez. Walker can kill that sort of defense with shots like this:

Also, that was Walker’s first two points of the game. That means he dropped all 40 of his points over the game’s final 34 minutes. That’s pretty impressive stuff!

8. Walker and Marcus Smart were the clear standouts for the Celtics. They combined for 64 points and carried Boston’s offense. But their great night overshadowed just how good Daniel Theis was. Theis scored 12 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and was Boston’s only good big on the night. This follow-dunk was Theis getting in position by knowing Lopez would help against Tatum’s drive:

Going the other way down the floor, Theis did something that no one does to Giannis Antetokounmpo:

Lastly, screen assists were a big topic of the NBA Twitter-sphere this week. No idea if seals count as screen assists. If they do, Theis has to be among the league-leaders. His ability to seal off rim protectors for driving teammates is elite:

9. This space has talked a lot about Jayson Tatum’s ability to impact games when his shot isn’t falling. That often manifests itself in his improved passing, or him getting on the boards. One way Tatum almost always shows up, no matter how his offensive night is going, is defensively. Tatum is averaging nearly a block per game, which is really good for a wing. His sense of timing of when to help is great, as he displays here against Khris Middleton:

10. Earlier we talked about what takes Boston so long to get into what works against Milwaukee. Look at where Brook Lopez is when Marcus Smart drives:

Lopez is in the restricted area. He’ll give up the floater/pull-up to Smart without much of contest. That’s how the Bucks defense is designed. The thing is: the Celtics have multiple guys who can make this shot! This should be a go-to all game long, not just when a comeback is needed.

Boston and Milwaukee play two more times this season, in mid-March and early-April. Given how things look, those games are likely to mean a lot for the Celtics for playoff seeding. It would be nice to see Boston go to what they know works right from the jump against the NBA’s best team versus waiting until they absolutely have to.