Since Mike Budenholzer became their head coach, the Bucks have prioritized one thing above all else: protect the paint. Milwaukee ranked top five to prevent rim shot attempts for four consecutive seasons, leveraging the size of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo to turn the restricted area, the land’s most valuable real estate, into a no-fly zone. There’s a trade-off that comes with selling to seal the basket, though: Milwaukee has made the bottom five in preventing 3-point attempts for four straight years, consistently allowing more triples over the break than any other team in the NBA.
Coach Bud and Co. are (mostly) okay with that. It’s a calculated bet: if we can keep you from getting close range looks on the league 66% of the time (which equates to around 1.3 points per possession), and forces you to take the cornerless deep shots that the average team only does about 35 percent time (about 1.05 points per possession), we are going to win a lot more often than we lose. It’s a math problem that, along with Antetokounmpo’s emergence as perhaps the best player in the world, helped propel the Bucks into the NBA. best record in the last four yearsand at the 2020-21 NBA Championship.
It also helped Milwaukee take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. With the Bucks tripling on the benefits of vastness inserting the 6ft 10in Bobby Portis into the injured Khris Middletonstarting spot, the Celtics took 50 of their 84 shots in Game 1 to 3 points – by far the highest 3-point attempt rate in Boston’s postseason franchise history. They made 18, which is a lot… but, ultimately, not enough when the opposition are suffocating you and only allowing 35 points inside the arc.
Given how out of character it was for Boston – a team that took 39% of their shots from deep during the regular seasonand 38 percent in his four-game sweep of the Nets – for leaning so heavily in Game 1, you’d expect the C’s to come out for Tuesday’s Game 2 a little less interested in just pitching. To the right?
In fact, not so much:
The Celtics came out firing again on Tuesday, throwing six long balls in the first seven and a half minutes of Game 2; this time, however, they drilled five. After Grant Williams smashed his way into an open 3 with 4:36 left in the first, Boston led by 15; the Bucks would never even hit single digits the rest of the way, as the Celtics went wire to wire to return serve with a 109-86 win behind post-season franchise-record 20 3-pointers on 43 attempts … which, by the way, again made up more than half of Boston’s total shots.
Entering this series, the Celtics had never had a playoff game in franchise history where they had attempted more 3s than 2s.
It happened in both games to start this streak. pic.twitter.com/pstaR2Cn3M
— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) May 4, 2022
The split may not always be this extreme, but the Bucks’ plan will continue to force the Celtics to a regular 3-for-3 and limit their inside opportunities. Boston needs to make sure as many of those looks as possible, both inside and out, are clean, generated by a combination of aggression, patience, spacing and ball movement.
“In the first game we did a poor job of rushing, just forcing shots,” Williams told reporters after the game. “The first 3 we saw were open, we shot, it didn’t matter if there were three people flying towards us. So tonight, we just knew the more we moved him, the more opportunities would open up.
Celtics star Jayson Tatum told reporters that the team had focused on trying to string drive-and-kick sequences together, believing that even if nothing opens up on the first penetration attempt, repeated side-to-side movements anyone else could punch holes in Milwaukee’s dogged defense. And it worked: Boston finished with 28 assists on 38 field goals, including assists on 18 of those 20 3-balls, many of them coming from dribble penetration to draw the assist followed by a kick to an open shooter or a swing to a teammate that could increase the advantage with another drive or extra feed.
The Celtics scored just 0.73 points by chance on their drives to the basket in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum. That number rose to 1.11 in Game 2, as Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White (starting with Marcus Smart, who sat with a right thigh contusion) all dropped pennies after beating their man in the paint and collapsing the defense. If they can find ways to make this driving and kicking machine work – more ball screens near half the pitch to weed out pressing defenders like Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter and give ball handlers a track seems like a good idea – then they might be able to wring enough interior points to stay afloat. Especially if that shot comes with careful ball handling (only four of Boston’s turnovers were live-ball coughs), defensive glass mastery (just five offensive rebounds for Milwaukee, after 10 in Game 1) and a careful transition the defense:
The Bucks scored 47 points either in transition or second chances in Game 1. They have three in the first half tonight. Turns out it helps when you make every shot and grab every rebound.
— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) May 4, 2022
And particularly on whether they can continue to make Milwaukee feel the pain of being on the other end of the math problem: After shooting 12-for-34 from range in Game 1, the Bucks fell to just 3-for-18 starting in a 3-point pitch in game 2—their least attempts or attempts any game at the time of Budenholzer. A big reason? Celtics coach Ime Udoka changed Boston’s approach to keeping Giannis.
Antetokounmpo assisted on more 3 points than any player apart from Luka Doncic during the regular season. He trails only Ja Morant for 3 dime points in the playoffs, and set up seven triples in Game 1 by taking advantage of the extra attention given to him by Boston’s assist defenders to feed his teammates. Tuesday, however, Udoka reminded help, trusting Al Horford and Williams to handle as much of the two-time MVP head-to-head as possible. Not only Antetokounmpo did not set up a Single 3 in Game 2 – his seven assists created buckets inside the arc – but Horford and Williams rose to the occasion, striking with Giannis and frustrating him in misguided frontal attacks, flails and errant fades, and erratic play that helped put Milwaukee in a hole that would prove too big to escape.
Without Middleton, Milwaukee’s second leading scorer, no. 3 assists and best 3-point marksman – Antetokounmpo needs to run play for the Bucks to consistently create scoring chances against a Celtics defense that allowed the fewest points per possession during the regular season. The tricky part, however, is that when Giannis encounters a bad pass, it’s not as easy to get him on the right track without Middleton available to serve as ball partner in the pick-and-roll.
Not as easy, but not impossible. Antetokounmpo did kick off in the second half, scoring 23 of his 27 points after intermission. He found success attacking the offsets he loved, both drawing switches on guards and, at times, shooting Celtics swatter Robert Williams III:
When he worked for a deep post on Horford and Grant Williams, rather than just trying to isolate himself on them, he had an easier time finding an entry angle:
And on a run midway through the fourth quarter that cut the deficit to 12, Giannis went to work with Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen in deuce action with the strong corner gutted, giving the guards a run in the paint. the rebound and Giannis a clean roll in space:
A common thread running through almost all of these plays: Giannis plays with another big, and in some cases as the only big, as Budenholzer sought to extract an offense that had spent most of Game 2 stuck in the mud. Lineups featuring Giannis, Lopez and Portis scored a abysmal 60.4 points per 100 possessions against Boston through two games, up from 100.0 points per 100 when Giannis and Lopez play without Portisand an even more impressive figure of 111.8 points per 100 points when Giannis and Portis play without Lopez. As effective as the big three look was against Chicago in the first round, Bud might need to consider shaking things up to put more shooting and play on the floor, and to better maximize Giannis against a defense of elite with more weapons to throw at them than any other team in the league.
The downsizing could jeopardize Milwaukee’s ability to adhere to Bud’s first principle of locking the paint above all else. Despite having the best rim protection in the world, the Bucks don’t win many games that include Antetokounmpo scoring five points in one half. Whether Boston makes 20 3 or not, Milwaukee’s best chance is to make the most of its greatest mathematical advantage: the Bucks have one more Giannis than you.