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Celtics struggle to overcome Lopez, Bucks defense in loss

In a tough opening loss, the Celtics were stymied by Brook Lopez and the stout, top-ranked Bucks defense.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

In their first regular season game in over four months, the Celtics fell short, once again, to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, losing 119-112 as the C’s struggled to cope with Brook Lopez and the #1 ranked Milwaukee defense.

Like a few other teams in the league, the Bucks employ pick-and-roll drop coverage, where their center (usually one of the Lopez brothers) sits back in the paint, as defenders funnel the ball-handlers towards him. Brook Lopez, for his part, has emerged as an All-Defensive candidate this season thanks to his much-improved play, and he dominated again tonight, finishing with six blocks, and altering a whole host more at the rim.

However, one of the shots that drop coverage does allow is the pullup. As the center retreats back, there is often space for the ball handler to get a shot off right after the screen. Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker are two of the best pullup shooters in the league. But on Friday night, Boston struggled to create much in the half court, finishing the game scoring just 0.785 points per possession in such situations – good only for the 7th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

Tatum had a tough night with his shot and, though he got a few good looks at pullups early in the game, stopped looking for them as the night went on. In just 19 minutes of action, Kemba managed to get three of his trademark pullups off, finding acres of space to get shots off after high picks.

The rust was apparent for Jayson Tatum when attacking the rim, too. After struggling with his finishing earlier in the year, Tatum was making some serious strides with his play around the rim before the hiatus, but reverted a little bit back to some of his old ways against Milwaukee. Often, especially in the first half, Tatum drove downhill with his head down, right at Brook Lopez, like the clip below, which allowed the Bucks’ big man to use his size and strength to put Tatum off. He ended the night going 0-11 on his 14 drives.

Another good counter for the drop coverage is the seal or the re-screen that Daniel Theis has become famous for. By sealing off the big man from behind, Theis has done a great job this year of opening up lanes for Tatum and Brown, but the timing was off against Milwaukee, with Tatum either driving too early or going right at Lopez.

Look at the difference between the following three clips. The first two are from the Bucks game, while the third is from a game in late February prior to the suspension against the Portland Trail Blazers who, with Hassan Whiteside, deploy the same drop coverage. It’s a similar situation in all three, with Tatum driving to the middle of the lane after being freed by a Theis half-screen/half-slip seal.

You can see Theis dart towards Lopez’s right-hand side, ready to re-screen the big man to free Tatum up for an easy lefty layup, but instead Tatum goes right at the 7-footer and isn’t able to finish.

In the second, Tatum is a little more patient, taking his time as he keeps Giannis on his hip for an extra second. This allows Theis to properly get in position, as he sets himself up on Lopez’s left hand side. Brook has to reach over Theis to try and get a contest and ends up sending Tatum to the line.

From earlier against the Blazers, Tatum has C.J. McCollum positioned right where he wants, waits for Theis to come back and seal Whiteside off, and is left with an easy layup with the center not impacting the play at all.

The other counter to the drop that the Celtics tried a bit more last night was the pick-and-pop. Theis matched his career high with six three-point attempts, and three of them came off pick-and-pops. Theis went 1-for-3 on those and 2-6 from deep overall as Keith Smith noted in his 10 Takeaways from Friday night. If these teams meet again Theis may very well be the most important player.

These are shots that he will always get against the Bucks, and Theis will need to continue to take them often to keep Milwaukee honest. While the C’s don’t have another big man who can stretch the floor like Theis, Brad Stevens could experiment with a five-out lineup for a few minutes with Tatum/Brown/Smart at the 5 when one of Giannis/Lopez is resting, to try and pull the big away from the paint.

All things considered--Tatum stuttering and Walker limited by a minutes restriction--it was an impressive night for the Celtics. They had the best team in basketball on the ropes and proved that they can contend in the Eastern Conference.

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