The best NBA teams, the real contenders and the eventual champ that raises the Larry O’Brien, impose their will on opposing teams. Over the course of the regular season, it may not be as noticeable. Eighty-two games can all blur together. In the playoffs, it’s more evident. As Game 1 turns into Game 2 then 3 and 4, a series can look like the car crusher at a junkyard, slowing reducing a team into a compact cube of broken glass, crumpled metal, and breaking points.
The Bucks have two-time MVP and Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Celtics’ calling card since their turnaround has been their defense. Both forces clash for Game 1 on Sunday (1 pm, ABC), but by the end of the conference semifinals, it may be the more unpredictable nature of three-point shooting that determines the series.
Milwaukee was a middle-of-the-road defensive team in 2021-2022
Much has been made of Boston’s defense, but how effective was it against Brooklyn in their first round sweep? The Nets finished with a 115.0 offensive rating, better than their 113.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. They shot a blistering 42.2% behind the arc, but here’s the catch:
As teams get eliminated from the #NBAPlayoffs, we're going to be analyzing differences in their shot diets from the regular season to the postseason. To start off, we're looking at the Nets following a surprising sweep at the hands of the Celtics: pic.twitter.com/sxCBLXZlOD— SIS Hoops (@SIS_Hoops) April 28, 2022
While Brooklyn did shoot 45.6% from the mid-range (3.4% better than league average), the Celtics effectively took away their shots in the restricted area and limited their three-point attempts from above the break. Much of Boston’s focus was obviously on Durant. By crowding and roughing up KD, the Celtics’ physicality was able to limit the Nets superstar, forcing nearly as many turnovers (21) as allowing assists (25). Despite coming to life in the elimination game (39 points on 13-for-31 shooting), Durant managed just 38.4% from the field on only 20.8 field attempts per game.
It was a masterclass in blunting a superstar’s influence in a series. They’ll try a similar tactic against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Round 2.
“Very different players, but there are some similarities in how they try and score,” Udoka said of the challenges defending Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Giannis is very different from Durant and Irving but a lot of the things we did against Brooklyn will carry over in this series.”
Under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have finished top-5 in three-point attempts in three out of the last four seasons and conversely, they’ve finished top-5 in giving up three-point attempts in three out of the last four seasons, too. In effect, their top-5 offense has turned NBA contests into carnival games to see who can make the most 3’s.
To call Giannis the engine of the Bucks’ offense is an understatement. He was third in the league in usage rate behind Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid and ranked third in Player Impact Estimate. Our friends over at Brew Hoop put it succinctly, “Boston is healthier, has been hotter, holds home court advantage...but the Bucks have Giannis.”
However, as CelticsBlog’s Jack Simone points out, Boston is perfectly equipped to throw multiple bodies at Antetokounmpo which would allow them to, for the most part, stay at home on perimeter shooters and secondary creators:
The Celtics have multiple players who can stick with Antetokounmpo. Al Horford is the first guy that comes to mind, followed by players like Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and even Marcus Smart. Not all of them are the perfect matchup, but they’re smart enough and maybe more importantly big enough on the defensive side of the ball to at least make Antetokounmpo think.
But even against the revolving door of defenders that Ime Udoka can throw at Antetokounmpo, he’s going to get his. The question is whether or not the rest of the Bucks will. Budenholzer’s five-out system is meant to create space for the Greek Freak to whirl into the paint to create for himself or pass it back out to the perimeter and without Khris Middleton, so much of the Bucks’ shot creation for their role players will come from Giannis.
During the regular season, Antetokounmpo lead the Bucks in passes that resulted in three-pointers attempted at 10.0 per game. That jumped up slightly to 11.2 against the Bulls in the playoffs. Milwaukee has a scary trio of 40% three-point shooters: Pat Connaughton (39.5% on 5.7 3FGA), Grayson Allen (40.9% on 5.9 3FGA), and Bobby Portis (39.3% on 4.7 3FGA). Any of those guys could be the Bucks’ Bruce Brown in Round 2.
The Celtics and Bucks split their four regular season meetings, but only the two games in December can really give us a good sense of what a seven-game series could look like. In November, the Celtics beat an Antetokounmpo-less Bucks team on the back of Dennis Schroeder’s 38 points. Last month, Milwaukee held off a Boston crew 127-121 without Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams. There were some key personnel absences on December 13 and nearly two weeks later on Christmas Day, but they could still be decent prognosticators, particularly beyond the arc.
Milwaukee shot 36 and 33 three-point field goal attempts, Boston 47 and 45, and they split those December meetings. For the Bucks, that’s right around their regular season averages of 38.4 attempts for themselves and giving up 40.6 to their opponents. As mentioned, they pack in the paint to force teams to rest their fate on their outside shooting. In the playoffs, the Bulls played right into that trap; Chicago made just 28.3% of their 36.8 threes against the Bucks in their gentleman’s sweep.
Milwaukee got up their share of threes (36.8 3FGA per game) against a Bulls defense without two of their best perimeter defenders, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso (for Game 5), available. Versus Boston, it could be a lot more difficult to generate those catch-and-shoot opportunities. Against KD and Kyrie, the Celtics were stingy. Even though the Nets shot a ridiculous 42.2% from behind the arc, they shot just 27.3 threes a game. Boston was able to force Brooklyn to more mid-range shots in their four-game sweep.
On the other side of the ball, the Celtics didn’t exactly catch the nets on fire against the Nets. A 12-or-39 team-wide performance in Game 3 — ironically and arguably Boston’s most convincing win in the series — dropped their three-point shooting percentage to 35.5% against Brooklyn, but it’s hard to deny how they were trending for the final four months of the season.
Celtics Three-Point Shooting Monthly Trends
Some of that can be attributed to effectively trading Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson for Derrick White and Daniel Theis and creating rotational minutes for Payton Pritchard. Some of it is water finding its level. But there’s also an element of confidence begetting confidence; as they started making more threes, they started shooting more threes. That should bode well against a Bud team more than happy to let them.
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