In the opening round series against the Brooklyn Nets, Tatum and the Boston Celtics were the ones playing physical and targeted defense against the stars of their opponent. In Game 1 against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, the visitors walked into The Garden and battled Tatum physically from opening tip to the final buzzer.
Tatum still produced in spurts, going for 21 points and 6 assists, but he was somewhat inefficient getting there with 19 field goal attempts and had to work particularly hard just to get that many shots off. Credit to the Milwaukee Bucks for setting the tone to start the series and coming up with a gameplan that specifically limited Tatum in ways they could deal with.
So what were those Tatum rules that Milwaukee leaned on in the series opener? Two words stand out thematically from the Bucks approach: pressure and dictate. In any situation or coverage, Milwaukee was determined to put pressure on Tatum when the ball was in his hands to either earn his shot, become a passer or take a physical beating getting to the rim. They also tried to dictate exactly how Tatum got his shots and where on the floor he’d be able to get to.
Veteran and physical wing Wesley Matthews drew the defensive assignment on Boston’s top scorer, and he did a damn good job executing what was asked of him and locking in on Tatum’s tendencies. The Bucks tried to wear out Tatum from the jump, picking him up frequently in the full-court to make sure he expended energy a full 94 feet.
The Celtics had to use these free screens, set by Al Horford and Robert Williams, beyond half-court to help Tatum get free. But the rest of the Bucks were crowding the nail hold so that if Tatum got any momentary separation in the full-court, his only option would be to kick it, as he did in the clip above to Marcus Smart.
Milwaukee’s extended pressure was accompanied by a heavy force left, influencing Tatum to stay away from his dominant hand. Matthews was dialed into staying on Tatum’s right hip so that, when Tatum drove it, it was to his left. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, when they got their chances to guard him, were excellent at doing the same.
The decision was made for Tatum of where he’d go, and the entire Celtics offense looked uncomfortable as a result.
Combine those two and Tatum had to work particularly hard to wiggle free. And even when he did, it was just to be a passer.
Early on, the Celtics were searching for buckets around Tatum. They were missing 3-pointers, Jaylen Brown had an off night and everyone else was struggling to figure out how to be aggressive for themselves. Tatum the distributor was even limited by not going to his right, as the Bucks continually hit him with “weak” coverage in ball screens and were disciplined for all 48 minutes not to let him get to his right.
The default to alleviate tough one-on-one pressure far from the perimeter is a high ball screen. As the Celtics would send a screener to help wiggle Tatum free, the Bucks altered their longstanding drop coverage. Brook Lopez, known throughout the league as a big who stays close to the basket as much as possible, was showing much higher on Tatum than expected. That positioning took away mid-range pull-ups and forced Tatum to be more of a playmaker as soon as he came off those screens.
The entire Bucks strategy was built around making someone other than Tatum beat them. The prime candidate who they wanted to step up and become a high-volume shooter was Al Horford. Big Al continually found himself open on the perimeter as the Bucks would sag off him. Lopez would stunt at the nail on Tatum drives to give up open Horford triples, or others would completely abandon Horford’s pops to the top of the key and let him shoot.
The strategy worked to an extent. While Horford made a few 3-pointers, he also led the team in attempts and the ball stayed out of the paint as a result.
Whenever Lopez was on the floor, the Celtics did have a quickness advantage somewhere, though. Lopez posted a team-worst -10 box plus-minus on Sunday because Tatum could find some ways to exploit his presence.
Despite Lopez showing higher than he’s accustomed to, he didn’t always succeed in getting there on time. The Celtics would raise the point of the screen to meet Milwaukee’s intense perimeter pressure, and Tatum would still have room to walk into some pull-up 3-pointers.
He banged two of them in Lopez’s face:
Perhaps the most prudent counter for the rest of the series, should this aggressive pick-and-roll defense continue, would be to utilize Horford more as a short roll playmaker. We all know Big Al is a fantastic passer, and the showing of Lopez would give him opportunities to slip past that first line of defense and let the Celtics play through a 4-on-3.
The one time that happened on Sunday resulted in a wide-open corner 3-pointer for Derrick White.
Part of the brilliance of Milwaukee’s defense is how long they are all over the place. Recovering to those corner shooters are guys who are either very long for their position or incredibly resourceful with their ground coverage. Open corner 3-pointers may be there, but the Bucks can and will contest those few straight-line attacks that find their way through the first line of defense.
Enter Giannis, the reigning NBA Finals MVP who had two sensational stuffs on Tatum this game. Both came from the exact same situation: Tatum taking advantage of over-aggressive pick-and-roll defense by splitting the action, straight-lining for the rim and being met there by the length and athleticism of Giannis.
As we mentioned, the Bucks seemed best in the moments when Lopez would sit. The speedier lineups Milwaukee would trot out there, with Bobby Portis at the 5, were more successful offensively and could afford to be more aggressive on Tatum defensively.
Portis, much more fleet of foot than Lopez, would pressure Tatum on the perimeter with a hard show in ways that almost simulate a trap. Tatum was once again turned into a passer, having to trust his roll man or battle to throw it over the top of Milwaukee’s great length and pressure.
Expect to see fewer Lopez minutes moving forward in the series if the Bucks have this much success forcing the ball out of Tatum’s hands when he sits. Lopez is very good and a nice counter to Boston’s two-big lineups, but the defenses they can throw at Boston’s pick-and-roll attack are more diverse without him. Milwaukee’s smaller lineups, which featured a surprising 22 minutes from Jevon Carter, are chocked full of good, long defenders that can get into the ball. Fresh bodies can cycle through the defensive assignment while Portis steps out harder to show on Tatum.
So what did Ime Udoka and the Celtics begin to do that could counter these coverages? Outside of a few pull-up 3-pointers and short roll passes, the Celtics stuck with Tatum trying to create shots for others the majority of the game. Boston simply didn’t make many (36% from 3-point range, a solid mark but not good enough on that volume to beat the Bucks) and took so many, as they were the only shots those sagging Bucks would give up.
Udoka did try a few unique ideas. One was to utilize a flare screen off-ball to get Tatum the rock and force a switch into an advantageous isolation. While Tatum got there, he was a little trigger-happy and took the bait of an immediate 3-pointer, failing to remedy Boston’s dire need for rim pressure:
It wasn’t until the third quarter that Udoka tried a few different things with the high ball screen. He’d have Marcus Smart or another guard set the screen, hoping to force a switch into a similar isolation that favors Tatum. Or they’d use Tatum as a screener, seeing if that would free up another Celtic for an open shot.
The Bucks did a lot to show their attention to detail on Tatum. They’d top-lock him when he was in the corners, trying to come off dribble handoffs and screens to his right hand for some easier looks. Blowing those up kept Tatum frustrated throughout the afternoon. They also didn’t rotate too far off him in scramble situations. It wasn’t exactly face-guarding, but whenever the ball was swinging around the 3-point line, their hierarchy was clear: anyone can shoot that isn’t Jayson.
The series is long, and another few days to prepare will only help Udoka, Tatum and the entire team get on the same page for how to dismantle the Bucks’ stellar defense. They threw some curveballs at Boston — and Tatum in particular — during Game 1, but it’s nothing so suffocating that he cannot lead his team to victory.
Welcome to superstardom, Jayson. This attention and coverage come with the territory.