In a virtual simulation of the NBA playoffs, Sports Illustrated and NBA 2K20 had the Celtics advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks (after beating the Sixers in 6 and the Raptors in 7 in the first two rounds). Boston would eventually lose to Milwaukee in Game 7 (“...Tatum can potentially go toe-to-toe with Giannis, and the Bucks could struggle to contain Boston’s five-out lineups...), but the Lakers subsequently beat the Bucks in The Finals.
It’s pixelated little men. It’s computer vs. computer. It’s fake. But it’s not implausible. In fact, I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to believe that the Celtics have a legit shot at raising the Larry O’Brien trophy over the heads and Banner 18 in the Garden. The Celtics have played four games against the conference leaders, splitting both series with home wins and road losses. Before the NBA was suspended, Milwaukee was putting together one of the greatest and one of the most efficiently regular seasons in league history. In the West, Los Angeles was 49-14 on the backs of two of the top five players, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
And they’re both beatable. Let’s take a look at Milwaukee first.
The Bucks are fueled by three-point shooting. The Rockets and Mavericks shoot more and make more, but Milwaukee has developed their entire identity around the arc. They not only shoot a lot of threes. They give up a lot of threes, too. The Bucks lead the league in opponent’s 3FGA’s at 38.6 per game, instead defending the paint at all costs. They give up a league-low 24.4 shots in the restricted area. They’ll trade threes with you like your popping quarters into a carnival pop-a-shot.
The Celtics and Bucks have played two regular season games. In Boston, the Celtics rallied from a 19-point deficit to win going away 116-105. Two and a half months later at Fiserv Forum, they chipped away at a 27-point lead and lost respectably 128-123. The three-point shooting in both contests were the biggest discrepancies. In their home wins, Boston and Milwaukee shot 41.5% and 45.0% respectively; one the road, their shooting percentages suffered major dips to 30.6% and 31%. Drill down even further and you can see the marked difference in what a couple of hot quarters can do. In Milwaukee, the Bucks made 12-of-15 threes in the first half; the Celtics missed 18-of-25. In their stirring comeback at TD Garden, the Celtics were 11-for-21 from behind the arc.
Maybe that’s a clear case for the importance of home court advantage. Maybe that small size theater. Only a playoffs series can tell. In last year’s five-game drubbing in the second round, Boston couldn’t hit the ocean (water analogy stops here). Outside of their Game 1 win, they shot a miserable 28.4% for the rest of what would be their even more miserable post-season run. Boston’s defense held up their bargain, limiting Milwaukee to 34.3%, but that wasn’t enough to overcome their anemic shooting. Kyrie Irving alone made on seven of his thirty-two attempts.
On Boston’s statistical side this season is their consistently strong 3-point defense in the Brad Stevens era. This year, they’ve duplicated their stinginess from behind the arc and are third in opponent’s 3FG% at 34.2%. If were talking about water finding its level, the Celtics have been able to avoid drowning in threes.
Of course, games aren’t simulated on 2K or played on spreadsheets and neither really capture the daunting task of playing against Giannis Antetokounmpo. On both sides of the ball, he’s a menacing presence, a basketball praying mantis that can strike at any moment. Thankfully, the Celtics have a pair of players that can keep him somewhat in check.
Let’s rewind. Over the summer, the quartet of Brown, Tatum, Walker, and Smart represented Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. Against Greece and
all the Antetokounmpo, it was the smaller Smart that contained the Greek Freak. Smart said, “Pop was like, ‘You’re one of our best shots to guard Giannis. Do what you do.’”
Just watch Marcus Smart work on Giannis and then fly into a closeout. Great stuff. pic.twitter.com/4Vqe6NlP5h— Jay King (@ByJayKing) September 7, 2019
Fast forward to the NBA season. In those two meetings, Antetokounmpo averaged 27 points and 6 assists against the Celtics. That’s right around his season averages and against Giannis, keeping him in check is considered a win and much of that can be credited to Smart. A lot of his defensive game is strong fundamentals and uncanny instinct, but there’s also elements of irritant and daredevil that makes Marcus so effective. In just those two games, Smart alone drew five offensive fouls on Antetokounmpo (two on offensive rebound attempts). They don’t necessarily have a counting stat effect in the box score, but they do chip away at his playing time. More so, it’s psychological warfare.
After that late-game tumble in October that saw both players grappling each other and crash to the floor, Smart knew he was winning the battle and the war:
“That right there,” Smart said, referencing the tumble, when asked how he knew he was getting under Antetokounmpo’s skin. “Every time I’m boxing him out, he’s trying to throw me out the way. It lets me know he’s frustrated, I’m getting to him, especially when he’s not getting to the ball, or he’s not getting to the rim, or he’s not getting the shots that he usually gets.”
It’s what we love about Smart and why players hate going against him. The other day, I bit the inside of my mouth and it swelled up and became a bloody mess. The following day, after it healed a little, I bit it again and it got exponentially worse. I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect microcosm of the pandemic and quarantine and how every day seems the same but slightly more miserable. That’s Marcus Smart, who tested positive for COVID-19, was asymptomatic throughout the infection, and subsequently donated his blood plasma to research the virus. Even the coronavirus couldn’t handle Smart’s defenses.
However, as much as Smart limited Antetokounmpo, there was a glaring absence in the regular season games that could tip the scales (further) in Boston’s direction if the two teams clashed in the playoffs. Jaylen Brown missed the October contest with the flu and again in January with a sprained thumb. Against the Bucks, he’s a clear difference maker and arguably Boston’s biggest asset to challenge the reigning MVP.
With a full complement of wings, that’s just more added pressure to Milwaukee’s interior defense that’s built to defend the paint. Walker, Tatum, and Hayward all average more drives than Brown per game, but it’s the athletic Brown that leads the team in field goal makes in the restricted area. Jaylen has a long history of challenging Antetokounmpo and cramming on him. Walker and Tatum were able threats (16-for-26 in the restricted area), but Boston was starved for another penetrator, particularly one with Brown’s power. To wit, Brown’s absence opened the door for more minutes between Semi Ojeleye and Brad Wanamaker; they were a combined 1-for-3 in the restricted area and 0-for-4 on drives. There’s also the added benefit of bringing Smart off the bench in his traditional sixth man role as Boston’s back up point guard and punch off the bench.
So much of this is statistical guesswork and admittedly, hometown bias. For those of you looking for a show to binge while staying indoors, there’s a great four-part docu-series on FX/Hulu called “The Most Dangerous Animal of All.” It follows author Gary Stewart who believes that his birth father was the Zodiac killer. In addition to tracking down his family tree and matching timelines with the murder, Stewart shoehorns handwriting samples from the ciphers that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and DNA results pulled off of licked envelopes to fit the shape of his suspicions. With the NBA indefinitely on pause, the only way to see the outcome of a potential Bucks-Celtics ECF is to blur your eyes a little bit and cross your fingers. I have and I think we’ve got a shot.