The basketball gods are fair. Every advantage comes with its disadvantages. Bigger usually means slower. Shots farther from the rim are worth more points, but fall at a lower percentage. The widespread introduction of analytics has put a larger focus on shot selection than ever before and over the last two seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks have been the winningest team in the regular season in large part to its mathematical approach.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo acting as an attention magnet on offense and a praying mantis on defense, it’s simple: attack the rim and shoot a ton of threes and protect the restricted area and force opponents to shoot a lot of jump shots.
On Opening Night, the Celtics edged the Bucks with a +12 advantage from behind the arc but a -10 hole in the paint. Milwaukee killed Boston off the boards (+9 on second chance points) and in transition (+13 on fast breaks), but the Celtics did just enough where the Bucks frankly wanted them to: the mid-range.
Per NBA Stats shot tracking, the Celtics were 19-of-46 between the restricted area and the three-point line. That may not seem like an impressive percentage, but this is where Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer wants to push opposing offenses. Last season, teams shot 11.6-of-40.5 from the paint and mid-range against Milwaukee. That stinginess put together the league’s best defensive rating in the regular season. Boston consistently and more importantly, comfortably lived in that previously undesirable space on the floor all night.
In three games against the Bucks last season, Boston shot 33-of-75 in the same zone. It’s telling that they nearly doubled their per game production in their first meeting this season. It seems to be a mindset change against Milwaukee. Instead of falling into their trap and making the game into a three-point contest, the Celtics will happy take what the Bucks are so willing to give up.
The Bucks notoriously play a lot of drop coverage defense. In most pick-and-roll situations, their center, particularly Brook Lopez, will back pedal to the restricted area in order to prevent any look at the rim. While that may dissuade PnR ball handler, it does give the rolling big real estate to carve out space.
On Boston’s first possession, it’s not exactly a pick-and-roll, but Jaylen Brown rejects the Marcus Smart screen and begins to drive off the left elbow. He engages two defenders, his own in Donte DiVincenzo and Brook Lopez, with Tristan Thompson waiting on the short roll. In the past, we might have seen Daniel Theis blocking out Lopez on a seal. Instead, Thompson receives the ball below the free throw line and gets off a baby hook for his first points in Celtics green.
Even on a late clock possession with Jayson Tatum in isolation, the Celtics are sure to have a big man around the free throw line. Tatum engages Lopez as a second defender and easily finds Thompson in space for another floater.
Brown and Tatum combined for only four makes at the rim, but they were fantastic fifteen feet away from the rim (9-of-16). Those can often be frustratingly head-scratching shots, but against a team like the Bucks who are so deliberate and disciplined with their coverage, those are the looks you just have to take. Boston still got up a ton of threes, but didn’t get much around the rim.
Wednesday's win doesn't mean that Boston will shift their offensive philosophies. Knowing Stevens and considering the current roster construction, the Celtics will still want to pace-and-space and read-and-react. However, against one of the league's best who can impose their style on most any team, Boston showed a willingness and frankly an unknown versatility from their two young stars to adjust and adapt.