The Celtics wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for their elite offensive execution on Friday night, as they consistently found gaps in the Bucks’ defense and attacked them relentlessly.
“We very deliberate about being connected and communicating on the fly. There were certain guys we wanted to pick on. At times, Giannis got fouls, we got a little heavy going after him and got bogged down, and we went away from that pretty quickly. Wanted to still pick on their lesser defenders, it takes a team out there, one guy might think he has an advantage, but you have a weaker defender on you, and everybody has to recognize that,” Ime Udoka noted when discussing how Boston hunted matchups throughout the game.
Boston hunted multiple members of the Bucks roster, ensuring their best players were attacking some of Milwaukee’s lesser defenders, even forcing one of the off the floor in crunch time. Let’s take a look at each player the Celtics targeted throughout the game.
Whenever it was possible to force Connaughton into switching onto Jayson Tatum or Brown, the Celtics would quickly flow into a pick-and-roll to force Milwaukee’s hand. In the above clip, Derrick White’s screen on George Hill forces the switch and places Connaughton on Tatum, allowing an easy blow-by and getting Boston’s star wing going downhill.
In fairness, Connaughton isn’t an awful defender, but he does lack the ability to flip his hips at speed, causing him to be slow when changing directions at anything above a 90-degree angle. So, when you beat the Bucks’ sharpshooter off the dribble, a whole new world opens up for Boston’s drive and kick game, especially if help defense reacts and starts to pinch in.
Ok, this play doesn’t show Boston hunting anybody on a switch. Still, it is a good indicator of how Connaughton struggles to get back into a play when he’s beaten on the perimeter, and the possession is beautiful basketball. Grant Williams sells the shot fake on the wing and takes his man clean out of the play, allowing the chatterbox to drive middle before kicking out to Smart, who fires a touch pass back into the paint for a Daniel Theis finish. Again, this possession illustrates the lack of speed at which Milwaukee’s defender can change position.
Things were slightly different for Allen, who often found himself as the weak-side low man, a position a team's weakest defender usually finds themselves in. As such, the Celtics ran actions to engage weakside help before kicking out to the open man, knowing Allen would have difficulties charging down his man and affecting the shot.
The Celtics went to this type of action early and often, looking to hit the roll man out of screening actions, forcing weakside help from Allen, and then kicking out to open shooters in the corner. In the above play, Al Horford acts as the pivot point for the ball, with Allen overhelping on the roll, despite there being a presence in the paint for the Bucks.
Sometimes, a defender isn’t poor when guarding the ball but often makes the wrong decisions when operating in an off-ball role. If you can pinpoint that, run actions based around the overhelp, and then punish the defense, you will have a successful night from the perimeter.
Another aspect of Milwaukee’s switching schemes is that they don’t boast the strength in depth that the Celtics have on that side of the floor. At times, Boston found opportunities to get favorable matchups on the low block, like in the above play where Tatum can go to work on Allen for an easy deuce.
“Grayson’s doing his best, the start of third quarter stands out to me, and we’ll look at the film. I’m sure Grayson can be better, and he’ll want to be better,” Mike Budenholzer told reporters following the game.
The Celtics successfully dragged Brook Lopez out to the perimeter via switches or forcing a hedge. In fact, Boston’s plan worked so well that the Bucks’ big man was yanked midway through the third and didn’t see the floor again that game.
Unlike Allen and Connaughton, Lopez’s presence on the perimeter was a ‘worst case scenario’ for Milwaukee, as the big man is better served in the paint, protecting the rim from any brave enough to challenge him vertically. With Lopez on the perimeter, life was far easier for the Celtics slashers. Tatum sank 75% of his shots when guarded by the big man.
Lopez has switched onto Tatum in the above play on the perimeter, with Giannis on the left elbow and Jrue Holiday on the right. This alignment is similar to the inverted zone Miami used to stifle the Celtics in the bubble. However, Al Horford now has a size advantage around the rim and can battle for any potential offensive board.
Lopez does enough to force Tatum into a miss, but by being so high up the floor, Horford is able to tip the ball back to a teammate to keep the possession alive. We also saw Boston attack this matchup by putting the ball on the floor and blowing by Lopez, leaving him trailing the play with little chance of getting back into the action.
Above, you can see what happens when Lopez tries to relocate on the perimeter, as he aims to cut off the middle of the floor for Jaylen Brown. However, Boston’s star wing is too quick for him and bursts past the defense with a rapid first step.
Lopez is an exceptional rim protector and can provide solid defense along the low-help line, either as the point of attack or helper, but asking him to guard quicker, shifter players on the perimeter is a recipe for disaster which allowed Boston to continually go at him until Mike Budenholzer pulled him from the game. Of course, with Lopez suddenly becoming a non-factor down the stretch, Boston was able to begin pressuring the rim at a higher rate, generating additional quality looks.
Another big man that is far better when the offense is in front of him than when he’s forced to rotate or defend on the move is Bobby Portis, and throughout Game 6, Portis found himself trying to slow down Derrick White and occasionally Smart and Tatum.
Of course, we can’t hold Portis accountable for moments like the one above, as when Tatum is in rhythm and gets to his side-step jumper, it’s pretty much over for whoever is unfortunate enough to be guarding him.
This possession paints a different picture and shows why Portis is better in drop coverage than playing high up on the screener. Here, we see White set an inverted screen for Tatum (smaller player screening for a bigger player) that is designed to force a favorable switch. The Bucks have tried to counter this by placing Portis on White so that Tatum has to contend with the big man's size and length on the perimeter when the screening action occurs. However, Holiday leans into the screen, and Portis is playing up to touch (where his hand is able to remain in contact with the screener) so that he can shoot the gap to cut Tatum off if he curls or drives over the screen.
The issue here is that both defenders have leaned into defending the wing, allowing Tatum to reject the screen, spins-off his man, and have oceans of space to barrel towards the rim.
Portis has been a formidable defender throughout this series, and when he keeps his man in front of him, he has been a robust rim protector, offering Milwaukee size and physicality. But, the Celtics had their way in dragging the bigs onto the perimeter as Game 6 wore on, most notably because of their reliable shooting from deep and forcing Milwaukee to alter their tried and tested gameplan.
Heading into Game 7
Milwaukee is a championship-level team, so they’re not going to move away from a defensive system that has won them a ring in the past and helped them to three victories in this series. Boston’s job is to continue converting their open looks and coaxing the Bucks’ into playing higher up on the perimeter as they did on Friday night.
If the Celtics can replicate their ability to hunt mismatches and force favorable matchups successfully, they’re going to be in a good spot throughout the contest. But, this is a Game 7; it’s do-or-die, so everything is going to be a little tougher - for both teams.
We’ve witnessed a chess battle over the last six games with the physicality of a football game, and we should be expecting more of the same on Sunday. Still, the Celtics have some of the most diverse offensive wings in the NBA, and hunting mismatches should be engrained into their DNA at this point; now it’s just about going out there and executing as they did at the Fiserv Forum two nights ago. If the Celtics can do that, they will be lining up against the Miami Heat in the coming days.