BOSTON— While you’re thinking about the last time the Celtics were ambushed like this against a good team in a marquee game (OK, we’ll spare you the research; the answer goes back to Dec. 10, a 21-point loss against the Suns), here are five takeaways from the Celtics-Bucks, Eastern Semifinals, Game 1:
1. Giannis is not KD
The task of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo poses a different — if not greater — challenge for the Celtics’ top-ranked defense than the Nets’ All-NBA forward Kevin Durant. Boston collected plenty of roses for its first-round lockout of Durant, presenting a thesis on how to D-up such a dangerous opponent. Durant, however, is primarily a (deadly) jump shooter while Giannis is an 18-wheeler with no brakes rolling down the mountain. Therefore, the strategy required adjustment for this mission.
And what was the verdict of game 1? Well, the good news for Boston is that Giannis needed 25 shots for his 24 points; it meant the Celtics were stealing his efficiency and making him work on the double teams. The bad news is that Giannis is a wiser attacking player, his passing and pitch awareness are sharper, and that’s why his 12 assists were just as damaging, if not more so, than his points.
Hey, when Kia’s double MVP can feed itself, which it did by throwing it off the backboard and then dunking the ‘pass’, you feel helpless. “It’s just pure talent, pure instinct,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. And when Giannis can literally injure your defenders, as he did to Celtics center Robert Williams with an errant kick to a sensitive spot, that’s a whole different challenge indeed.
2. Land in Tatum
Happy to see you again. OK, let’s be fair here: Jayson Tatum is entitled to a below par performance. Especially since he has been residing for about four months in another atmosphere. And especially as he’s coming off a blistering first-round streak, one of the best acts on both sides in Celtics history – which is saying a lot – with his scoring (29.5) and his defense against Durant. Well, gravity pulls everyone at some point, and for Tatum, that happened in the first game when he finally cooled off and seemed a bit restless and definitely frustrated at times.
Tatum never hurt the Bucks; he scored 6 baskets with three turnovers. A rather telling streak was when, down 16 in the fourth quarter, he had the ball pushed and called for a foul while he and Wesley Matthews struggled for it on the floor. Tatum stood up and threw an angry fist at the officials; on the next trip to the floor, it was still bubbling… and quickly fired a shot.
Again, to be clear, Tatum has been a top five basketball player since January; which coincides with the Celtics’ turnaround and push. But he came out empty on Sunday, joined in misery by his co-star, Jaylen Brown (seven turnovers, four baskets). Boston probably can’t beat the Bucks if this continues more than once.
3. But what about the D of the Bucks?
For much of the year, the Bucks have been passive on defense and lousy at times, especially for a defending champion who prioritized defense. Apart from Jrue Holiday and Giannis, everyone rubbed shoulders. Obviously, though, the switch flipped after the stars broke, and it had a lot to do with Brook Lopez’s return from a back injury that surfaced on opening night and put him down. shelved until April.
Lopez was solid in defense again on Sunday, especially when Giannis was forced to the bench with fouls. Lopez was three blocks and his length and rim protection made the Celtics think twice every time they drove into the lane. In the first round against Chicago, the Bucks held the Bulls under 90 twice in five games, and now the Celtics once in one game.
It’s a sharp turnaround that doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but Milwaukee’s about-face is one of the big factors in the NBA this postseason. The Celtics discovered this firsthand when they shot just 33% and spent much of the game playing catch-up. “In a way, it’s nice to get rid of that miss, offensively,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
4. How much they like it
The match between Jrue Holiday and Marcus Smart initially raised fears that the two supreme defenders were holding each other scoreless. Well, one game after, it’s Jrue 1, Smart 0. Adding injury to insult, the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year left the game in the second quarter with a sting in the shoulder, one that had the looks much worse than it was.
Smart returned to start the second half and his tough afternoon continued. He only made one field goal in the second half, and in that time Holiday poured in 25 points for the afternoon, a handful of pull-ups, and only turned the ball over twice. in 36 minutes. He was nearly as damaging against the Celtics as Giannis, mostly because Holiday stayed clear of fouls, impacted the game for both sides, and added nine rebounds and five assists.
5. Losing Boston could prove costly
It’s never a good sign to drop the home series opener and lose that advantage. A bigger issue for the Celtics is how the Bucks just bought time waiting for Khris Middleton to return. When Milwaukee can win without someone who has as much clout as Middleton, it feels like there’s a bonus attached. There is no specific timetable for Middleton’s arrival, although the initial prognosis has him missing at least the first two games of this series, which would make Game 2 almost a must win for the Celtics if Middleton does. actually gearing up for a Game 3 comeback.
As they look to Tuesday, the Celtics take comfort in knowing that Tatum and Brown are unlikely to combine to shoot 10-for-31 again. Still, the Celtics need to find a way to slow Giannis down – easier said than done. to do – and take a chance when the ball goes to Wesley Matthews or Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton for open looks. Of these three players, only Allen is worth worrying about, solely because of the way he has been playing lately. Once Middleton is back in the Bucks’ lineup, Boston’s strategy of doubling down Giannis becomes riskier because Middleton is a proven bucket-getter when left open.
Shaun Powell covered the NBA for over 25 years. You can email him here, find his archives here and follow him on Twitter.
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