Ime Udoka’s first postseason as the Boston Celtics’ head coach started out with a bang. He devised a defensive game plan that completely flummoxed Kevin Durant in the team’s first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets. Offensively Boston picked at mismatches and pummeled Brooklyn inside, taking advantage of a dearth of rim protectors on the Nets’ roster. The series ended in a sweep.
The effectiveness of Udoka’s strategies, against a team that was at one time considered a favorite to win the Eastern Conference, was a bold entrance to postseason stage. He attempted to recreate the magic in the Celtics’ first game of their second-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, tilting his defense heavily towards slowing Giannis Antetokounmpo at all costs.
In terms of individual production, Udoka’s scheme worked. Antetokounmpo shot just 9-of-25 from the field, as Boston hounded him with double teams sent from all over the court. The Celtics’ aggressiveness against Milwaukee’s superstar made life a bit too easy for him as a facilitator though. Antetokounmpo finished the game with 12 assists, consistently finding his teammates whenever Boston over-helped, which was often.
The Bucks took Game 1, and Udoka went back to the drawing board. In Game 2 on Tuesday, he dialed the Celtics’ help on Antetokounmpo way back, frequently trusting Al Horford and Grant Williams to absorb blows from the Greek Freak on an island while remaining stout enough to contest him by the basket.
Antetokounmpo had a slightly more efficient night scoring the ball, but Milwaukee’s shooters suddenly found themselves with much less daylight. The Bucks shot an abysmal 16.7 percent from beyond the arc on just 18 total attempts, their lowest of the season.
Boston trended in the opposite direction from deep. The Celtics hoisted 43 triples, connecting on 46.5 percent of them. Boston was critiqued fairly harshly for relying so aggressively on threes in its first contest with Milwaukee, but Udoka stayed confident in his team’s ability to punish the Bucks from behind the line.
The Celtics’ head coach indicated after Game 1 that he had been looking for more ball movement, but that the general shot profile of his team – which included 50 three-point attempts – was not disturbing to him.
That’s a bold stance to take about an approach to a game in which your team performs quite so poorly as Boston’s 89 total points reflected. However, Game 2 suggests Udoka was right not to balk at such a high three-point attempt rate. Milwaukee’s defense gives up open threes by design, and wide open triples are good shots, regardless of whether or not its the first time you shoot one or the fiftieth. In a post-Game 1 film session, he remarked that there was more good than bad in their offensive approach.
Udoka simply wanted the process his team implemented to include more forays toward the rim and crisper passing, punctuation be damned. He got that, particularly in the first half. The Celtics put more pressure on the paint and pinged the ball all over the court to cash in oodles of open looks from deep.
The question now is what happens next? Boston’s offense lost a bit of pep in the second half, and Milwaukee started to find ways to use Antetokounmpo effectively as a screener against the Celtics’ more conservative defensive approach. His defenders hugged close to him as he rolled to the hoop, creating massive driving lanes for the pick-and-roll ball handlers he freed up.
The Celtics could switch these actions, but would then run the risk of having to send aggressive help to slow Antetokounmpo against resulting mismatches. They could play a more conventional drop coverage and pinch in from the corners to tag Antetokounmpo on the roll, but that may free up too many good three-point looks for the Bucks’ cadre of shooters.
There aren’t a lot of good answers when dealing with the league’s most physically dominant player, but there is a right answer, and it’s now up to Udoka to not only find it, but correctly identify the ever evolving question Antetokounmpo poses. It’s as good an opportunity to prove himself as he could ever hope for.
Game 3 of a series tied 1-1 is perhaps the moment when coaching matters most. The foundation of what works and what doesn’t work has been established, but not quite every possible strategy a team has up its sleeve has been tested. Figuring out just how far to push the boundaries of tactical creativity is a delicate dance.
“As you get into the series and it goes longer and longer, the tweaks become probably smaller and more pronounced, but you’re just trying, game-to-game, to get little advantages,” President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens told 98.5 The SportsHub’s Toucher & Rich on Thursday. “You have to be quick to adjust, you have to be quick to tweak, but you also have to play a fast game with a clear mind. It’s quite a balance of what’s too much — you just have to find what’s exactly perfect and go from there. Ime does a really good job with that. Our staff does a really good job with that.”
Good coaches watch film and make smart adjustments from game-to-game. Great coaches make them on the fly. The very best coaches have already anticipated what their counterparts’ adjustments will be and have a strategy in mind to take advantage of them. Udoka is quite clearly a good coach. Game 3 represents an opportunity for him to show the world if he’s even more than that.