During Game 2 of their second round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics made some crucial adjustments on the defensive side of the ball. Primarily, they decided to no longer double Giannis Antetokounmpo. And thanks to the impressive one-on-one defense of Grant Williams and Al Horford, the Celtics were able to slow down Antetokounmpo while simultaneously keeping the rest of the Bucks at bay.
However, just as Antetokounmpo will likely bounce back from his struggle-filled start to the series, Milwaukee will make the necessary adjustments to counteract Boston’s defense. That change started in the second half of Game 2, where the Bucks outscored the Celtics 46-44.
Despite a stagnant 26-18 third quarter advantage, not doubling Antetokounmpo worked well enough for the Celtics to stick with that plan. Sure, he had a phenomenal third quarter, but the Celtics would have won even if Antetokounmpo had gone for 50 points in Game 2.
That argument is a bit flawed, considering how certain buckets could change the entire flow of the game. Still, the point stands: letting Antetokounmpo work and stopping Milwaukee’s other threats was an effective gameplan. In turn, let’s look at some ways the Celtics can effectively slow down the Bucks’ offense outside of Antetokounpmo.
With Khris Middleton sidelined, Holiday is Milwaukee’s secondary option on the offensive end, and he’s acting like it. Through two games, Holiday has attempted 40 shots, Antetokounmpo is at 52, and the player with the third-most is Bobby Portis with 19.
Unfortunately for Milwaukee, that hasn’t translated to effective on-court results just yet. Holiday shot 8-for-20 from the field in Game 1 and 7-for-20 from the field in Game 2. This brings his total to 15-of-40 for the series, equal to 37.5% shooting, including a respectable 4-of-11 from three-point land (36.4%).
Holiday is primarily scoring inside the three-point arc. Two of his four made three-pointers have come in transition, one was a stepback corner three off the dribble, and the other was coming off an Antetokounmpo screen.
For the most part, Holiday has been trying his best to attack in the paint and work off screens. Most of his paint success has come off the dribble when attacking a mismatch, while his other buckets in the half-court have been thanks to Antetokounmpo screens. Let’s focus on those paint looks first.
This play is the perfect example. Robert Williams somehow ends up on Holiday, and he immediately attacks. Both he and Antetokounmpo have attacked Time Lord a lot this series, and in Game 2, it worked out well for them.
However, Williams isn’t the only player Holiday has been able to attack. The hard-nosed point guard has also found success going at Horford when he gets the switch.
There’s no real defensive adjustment for Boston on these plays outside of Williams and Horford staying home. If they send help on Holiday, that’s just going to generate open looks for his teammates. By leaving Holiday on an island, the Celtics are forcing him to be a scorer. The moment they send help, Holiday simply makes the right read and earns the Bucks an easy bucket, as seen below.
So, as far as Holiday’s paint attack goes, Boston’s bigs just have to do a better job at staying in front of him. If not, then the Celtics will just have to live with those looks until the Bucks make it a focal point of their offense. As far as Holiday’s pick-and-roll game goes, there is some room for improvement for the Celtics.
As mentioned, Holiday has been getting a bunch of easy looks off screens. He’s finding open space because whenever Antetokounpmo sets the screen, Boston drops down to stop the drive.
Now, if this is what it takes to slow down Antetokounmpo, then so be it. These could very well be shots Ime Udoka and the C’s are willing to live with. However, if they did want to shut things down, there are a few paths they could take.
In that first clip, Antetokounmpo sets the screen, Tatum goes over it, and Holiday has a few options. He could dump it to Brook Lopez, but Horford is glued onto him. He could dish it to Antetokounmpo on the roll, but Horford could just as easily come over to help there. Instead, Holiday opts for the easy mid-range jumper.
As soon as the screen is set, Tatum is stuck in no man’s land. He’s too late to contest Holiday on the jumper, but he’s also behind Antetokounmpo, so he can’t cover the roll. This is the case for all of the clips. With the roll-defender in drop coverage and Holiday’s defender either going over the screen or switching, he’s left open.
The easiest solution is for the defenders to go under screens when Antetokounmpo sets them. However, this would then mean the Celtics would have to live with slightly-contested Holiday threes. Maybe that’s a gamble they’re willing to take, maybe it’s not, but considering Holiday has shot 3-of-15 (20.0%) on open threes (defender within 4-6 feet) in this year’s playoffs, they should give it a go.
If Tatum were to have gone under the screen, Holiday would have been forced to either take the three with Tatum closing out after fighting around Antetokounmpo, or he would have had to find another play to make. Again, it’s a small risk because Holiday could catch fire from three at any point, but he’s more deadly from the mid-range than from deep, based on the stats.
Holiday has scored almost exclusively in three ways against the Celtics through two games: on mismatches against Boston’s bigs, off of Antetokounmpo screens, or in transition. He also scored twice off of Antetokounmpo’s penetration, but both of those looks came in Game 1 before the Celtics stopped doubling Antetokonmpo.
Outside of the slight adjustment of going under Antetokounmpo screens when Holiday has the ball, the Celtics have been playing him pretty well. They just have to hope Williams and Horford can stay in front of him better.
Heading into the series, especially with Middleton out, Allen was the player to watch. He had a couple of impressive games in Milwaukee’s series against the Chicago Bulls and had been a go-to guy for the Bucks all season as they dealt with numerous injuries. Allen has turned himself into a lights-out shooter who excels in catch-and-shoot situations. And in Game 1, that’s exactly what he did.
When the Celtics were doubling Antetokounmpo, Allen was feasting. Antetokounmpo showed off his improved playmaking skills, finding Allen for open looks on the perimeter.
Allen also found some success attacking Williams on the perimeter, similar to how Holiday got inside. He also attacked the paint as Holiday did, finding open space when Antetokounmpo would set the screen.
Outside of those two scenarios, Allen’s buckets came off of turnovers and in transition. So, when the Celtics stopped sending help Antetokounmpo’s way in Game 2, it quieted Allen’s offensive production.
He only attempted four shots in Game 2, connecting on two of them. One of his makes was a tough layup over a jumping Williams, while the other was thanks to the aforementioned Antetokounmpo screen. He only attempted one three, and it was a quick-fire look in transition.
So as far as slowing down Allen, the Celtics have already found the key to that: stop doubling Antetokounmpo. While Allen is perfectly capable of creating looks for himself off the dribble, that’s not his role in Milwaukee’s offense. By not sending help on Antetokounmpo, Boston took away the Bucks’ ability to generate open threes for Allen. He was a non-factor in Game 2, and while Milwaukee will likely find ways to get him more involved moving forward, Boston’s defensive gameplan for him is sound as of now.
This is an intriguing one. Connaughton is sneaky. He’s been the beneficiary of Antetokounmpo screens and the Celtics sending double-teams, just as his teammates have been, but he’s also found a way to sneak through the teeth of the defense.
First and foremost, though, Connaughton is Milwaukee’s equivalent of Grant Williams. He spends a lot of time in the corner just waiting for his defender to provide help defense, and when he receives the pass, he’s money.
Connaughton shot 45.0% on corner threes during the regular season, and so far this series, that number has spiked to 66.7%. So the first adjustment Boston can make is to run him off the line. Don’t let him set up in the corner. However, Connaughton has other tricks up his sleeve once the Celtics do this.
So far this series, Connaughton has done a great job of cutting. Whether this is off a screen, on an inbound play, or as part of a give-and-go, Connaughton has made himself available while getting downhill.
His ability to sneak through Boston’s defense has created a bunch of open looks. Connaughton’s even been a valuable guy for the Bucks off the dribble. He’s been able to penetrate through the Celtics’ defense and get easy looks at the rim.
So, while it’s as simple as running him off the three-point line, when he’s in the corner, stopping Connaughton in the cutting lanes could prove to be more of a challenge. In that first clip of him slipping past Horford and Brown, however, it’s just a matter of the Celtics paying attention. Horford stepped up to help on Antetokounmpo, but Brown kind of stood stuck in the middle, allowing Connaughton to reposition himself under the hoop. He’s a smart player who is great at putting himself in the right position. Boston’s primary adjustment when it comes to stopping him is just knowing where he is at all times.
As well as Portis has played through the first two games, the looks he’s getting aren’t sustainable. He’s gotten a few threes off of drive-and-kick opportunities, which the Celtics could potentially clamp down on, and he’s scoring some in transition, which can be nullified by the Celtics taking better care of the basketball, but for the most part, it’s been contested post-ups, and tough mid-range looks.
In fact, nine of the ten field goals Portis has attempted from inside the three-point arc this series have been tightly or very tightly contested. Sure, he’s shot 8-of-9 on those looks, but if Portis sinking contested twos is Milwaukee’s offensive gameplan, that should be something the Celtics are willing to live with.
The only potential change the Celtics could make when it comes to guarding Portis is to close out quicker when he gets threes off of drive-and-kick looks. That being said, Portis is shooting 2-of-9 from deep this series, so in reality, they don’t really need to make any changes.
In Game 1, Lopez was a monster in the paint on the defensive side of the ball. However, he’s been relatively a non-factor on offense. The Celtics don’t really need to worry about “guarding” him, per se, but they do need to keep him off the offensive boards.
Lopez has nabbed six offensive rebounds this series. He’s been a menace on the glass, creating easy second-chance looks for himself and others.
(That was a good look for Connaughton, even if it didn’t fall.)
The biggest adjustment the Celtics can make is simply making sure that they have a big body on Lopez. His size and strength allow him to bully small defenders down low and grab easy offensive rebounds. All that being said, he hasn’t been a major issue for the Celtics on the offensive end this series.
In this case, “the rest” is just Wesley Matthews and Jevon Carter, both of whom haven’t provided the Bucks with much offense this series. They’ve combined to average nine 9.0 points and have shot 6-of-14 (42.8%) from the field and 2-of-9 (22.2%) from deep.
They’ve primarily been getting looks in the same ways their teammates have. Carter has found limited success working off Antetokounmpo screens, while most of Matthews’ looks have been catch-and-shoot threes. (He’s shot 1-for-7 on catch-and-shoot threes this series, which have accounted for all but two of his total shot attempts.)
Boston’s only concern with these two is getting a contest on their three-point attempts when they get open. There aren’t any adjustments needed simply because they haven’t provided enough on offense to warrant any.
All things considered, the Celtics have done a phenomenal job at containing the Bucks this series, especially since they stopped doubling Antetokounmpo. Most of the open looks Milwaukee’s role players were getting were because the Celtics were sending help on Antetokounmpo.
Bucks players not named Antetokounpmo have shot 51-of-111 (45.9%). That number sounds pretty good until you start digging into the roots.
Subtract the 8-of-9 Portis is shooting on contested twos, and it’s down to 43-of-102 (42.1%). Take away the three threes Allen and Connaughton combined for off of Antetokounmpo double-teams in Game 1, and the number is down to 40-of-99 (40.4%). If the Celtics can hold everyone not named Antetokounmpo to around 40% shooting, that’s a massive win.
Boston is willing to take the chance that Portis won’t continue to make contested shots inside, and they’ve already changed their defense to adjust for the open looks Antetokounmpo generated in Game 1. Now, it’s just about the little things.
Those little things include going under Antetokounpo screens when Holiday has the ball, understanding where Connaughton is off the ball, and putting big bodies on Lopez to keep him off the offensive glass. Other than that, the Celtics’ defense has been great.
When it comes to the Bucks, slowing down Antetokounmpo will always be the top priority. But with Williams and Horford bodying him one-on-one, the Celtics can account for the “others” more effectively. That’s the key to winning this series on the defensive end.