clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Bucks-Celtics chess match

A flurry of threes, Smart vs. Lopez, and beating size with speed highlight a potential Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Four Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

All the threes

The Celtics are going to shoot a lot of threes. The Bucks are going to shoot a lot of threes. When the two teams face each other, it sometimes feels like whoever makes the most is going to win the game. In their seven-game series last year, the team that made more threes won five out of six games (in Boston’s Game 3 loss, both teams made nine).

During this three-game regular season series, Joe Mazzulla has leaned heavily into the perimeter-oriented gameplan. Last night, their blistering pace was on par with their early season shooting; hitting 22-of-43 from behind the arc. On Christmas Day at TD Garden, they left nineteen threes under Milwaukee's tree in another 139-118 blowout. And even in the Bucks overtime win against the Hospital Celtics back in February, Boston shot 50 three-pointers.

Marcus Smart vs. everybody

With Boston seemingly abandoning their double-big starting lineup with Horford and Williams in favor of playing small and bringing in Williams off the bench as a change of (s)pace big, there was some question with how the Celtics would deal with Brook Lopez. Harken back to 2022 and it was Horford who did the bulk of defending Antetokounmpo, but that left the 7’1 Lopez unchecked.

Enter Marcus Smart.

Sure, much of Smart’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign last season was highlighted by hustle plays, difference makers, and Tommy Points. But what has made Smart such a consistent defender — particularly in Boston’s switching scheme — is his ability to guard up against bigs.

For Mazzulla, this is practically a dare. Lopez has rebuilt his game from his low-post heavy offense from when he was younger to a more perimeter-oriented style not unlike Horford. But with a juicy matchup against the shorter Smart, the Bucks would be remiss to not pound the paint with Lopez’s 300 pounds.

Smart’s crafty though, annoyingly so. To my fellow parents out there, have you ever stepped on a LEGO in the middle of the night? That’s Smart. He lowers his center of gravity in an attempt to mitigate the height advantage.

Lopez is still a load around the rim, but get low enough and you can down Goliath with a perfectly placed rock (at its knees and not between the eyes).

Speeding with deers in the road

The Bucks are big. Really big. After their three seven-footers in Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Bobby Portis, Milwaukee is flush with length on the perimeter. Jrue Holiday is a big point guard and veterans Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews, and Pat Connaughton are 6’5+.

Boston’s advantage against that much beef? Speed. Shooters and dribble drivers that, given a small advantage, can get their shoulders around you and take it to the rim in a 5-out system. The Celtics shot an unsustainable 51.2% from behind the arc (22-of-43). That’s not the headline. They were also 24-of-30 in the restricted area and took just nine shots between the arc and the paint. In a return to the city that drafted him, Malcolm Brogdon ran a layup line against his former team.

This has been the state of play, but we all know that playoff basketball can be different. Mismatches will get exploited and then there will be adjustments and then there will be adjustments to the adjustments. So far, the Celtics seemingly have the Bucks’ number and what’s made it so stark is their command on both sides of the ball. If the shots don’t fall, the defense will make the difference. If Giannis goes off for 40+ points, there are enough pressure points that the Celtics can take advantage of on offense.

It took seven games and Grant Williams going nuclear to determine last year’s series. “I think we’re a better team than we were last year,” Brown said after he and Tatum put up 70 points on Thursday night. This summer, maybe it doesn’t go the distance.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog