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Conundrum: The Bucks’ Challenge Solving the Celtics

The Eastern Conference Semifinals series is tied 1-1, with Game 3 in Milwaukee on Saturday.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks shocked many of us by showing up for Game 1 of their NBA playoffs series against the Boston Celtics, asserting their dominance and never letting their grasp on the game loosen. Their performance in Game 2 – a 109-86 rout in favor of the Celtics – was the type of result we braced for at the outset of the series; had the games been switched chronologically, Bucks fans would be elated at the prospect of splitting the first pair of contests and turning the series into a best-of-5 with home court advantage going into Games 3 and 4. At the end of the day, that result is the one that matters most. Milwaukee just has to beat Boston three more times to punch their ticket for a return to the Eastern Conference Finals.

As was initially expected, that will be easier said than done.

Game 1 of this series was an exercise in tone-setting, where the Bucks established a no-fly zone around the rim as well as embraced the physicality that Boston used (to great success) in their previous series against the Brooklyn Nets. Head coach Ime Udoka took notes in preparation for Game 2, and made enough changes to completely overhaul how the game was played, and it was Milwaukee who failed to find shot opportunities from behind the arc, where they took a grand total of 18 attempts, by far the lowest figure in the Mike Budenholzer Era.

How? By changing how they defended Giannis Antetokounmpo. From The Athletic:

Just like they did when Antetokounmpo was posting up, the Celtics took the early and easy playmaking opportunities away from Antetokounmpo and instead forced him to try to work one-on-one against a defender off the dribble.

“They’re just showing bodies,” Antetokounmpo said of why he has struggled to score efficiently in this series. “Being active. Being physical. That’s pretty much it.”

To be clear, the Celtics were still loading up against Antetokounmpo from a help perspective. When Antetokounmpo touches the ball, all eyes are on him, and the Celtics are still building a wall of help defenders. When Robert Williams was in the game, he was still sticking around the rim to try to block shots. But the Celtics refused to let Antetokounmpo pick them apart with his passing by throwing early double teams at him before he started his post-ups or drives and instead forced him to take on their lead defenders one-on-one.

From The Ringer:

Antetokounmpo assisted on more 3-pointers than any player besides Luka Doncic during the regular season. He trails only Ja Morant for 3-point dimes in the postseason, and set up seven triples in Game 1 by leveraging the extra attention shown to him by Boston’s help defenders to feed his teammates. On Tuesday, though, Udoka dialed back the help, entrusting Al Horford and Williams to handle the two-time MVP one-on-one as much as possible. Not only did Antetokounmpo not set up a single 3 in Game 2—all seven of his assists created buckets inside the arc—but Horford and Williams proved up to the task, banging with Giannis and frustrating him into ill-advised head-on attacks, errant flails and fadeaways, and erratic play that helped put Milwaukee in a hole that would prove too big to escape.

By changing where the help on Giannis was coming from, the Celtics short-circuited Milwaukee’s offense by restricting the overall number of three point attempts. To their credit, Boston came out with purpose and never relented in pressuring Milwaukee on the line. To their discredit, Milwaukee didn’t make any in-game changes that might have increased their three-point attempt rate; 8 attempts in the first half followed by only 10 attempts in the second half is simply uncharacteristic and untenable for a Bucks team that’s missing Khris Middleton.

For reference, over the past 4 seasons the Bucks have averaged 13.7 makes on 37.8 attempts per game, which comes out to a tidy 0.361 accuracy rate. After Game 2, we find ourselves in a familiar place; a tough postseason environment where Milwaukee seems to have forgotten how to shoot. But Game 2 wasn’t just a bad game in terms of accuracy, they flat-out couldn't find attempts. Using our old friend standard deviation, Milwaukee’s 18 attempts were over three standard deviations lower than their Bud Era average. That is preposterously low! That is as far of an outlier as you can find in an NBA game log, and even still this game was closer than the final score would indicate...and had each team performed closer to expected, we might be telling a wildly different story today.

As surprising as it might sound, the Bucks’ defense has maintained its structure so far. Out of 164 Boston shot attempts, 93 have been three-pointers. Less than half of the Celtics’ shots (71, about 43%) are coming from inside the arc, and a good number of those attempts (18, based on reviewing the shot charts from Game 1 and Game 2) have been outside the paint. All in all, Boston is taking less than one-third of their attempts near the rim, and unless their outlier conversion rate holds up the Celtics offense is going to get pulled back into the mud...right next to Milwaukee’s.

But defense alone isn’t going to right the ship and get the Bucks out in front in this series. They need to bring their offense back online, and that means both finding shots for their outside shooters and Giannis Antetokounmpo sorting out whatever it is that needs sorting out. For anyone who hasn’t watched the games, Giannis has gotten enough looks...but he’s not putting them in.

That’s an awful lot of red Xs in the paint, far more than you’d expect for one of the league’s historically-great close-range scorers. But without Khris Middleton to take the tough shots or set Giannis up with pick-and-roll actions, the Greek Freak is reverting to old habits almost out of necessity. Besides Jrue Holiday (who has also been iffy on offense, going 15-for-40 from the field), Milwaukee doesn’t have a credible ball-handler that can take control of the offense so that Giannis doesn’t have to, and the result is a ton more “hero ball” than we’ve become accustomed to.

The easiest and most obvious non-schematic change would be to change the starting lineup and downsize from Bobby Portis to one of Milwaukee’s reserve wings. Wes Matthews already has a firm grasp his starting role, as his physical defense has been instrumental in limiting the Boston offense. That means the realistic candidates for moving Bobby to the bench are either Pat Connaughton or Grayson Allen; Jevon Carter is too small and is needed to provide defensive cover when Jrue Holiday needs rest. George Hill, if healthy, could be a viable option to keep both Allen and Connaughton with the reserves, and his ability to orchestrate offense could come in handy...but that will only work if he’s 100% ready to go, which has not been the case lately.

Benching Bobby would not be a demotion, and actually might be a blessing; Portis’ offense has been productive but doesn’t prop up the team’s offense as a whole, and unless he’s vacuuming up offensive rebounds (Milwaukee had only ten OREBs in Game 1, and five in Game 2) his scoring is the sort of asset that fits anywhere within the game. On defense, he’s performed admirably with his activity level and while he doesn’t protect the rim the same as Giannis or Brook Lopez, he’s an adequate barrier when supported by one of those two. It’s strange to suggest that Portis – a 38% career three-point shooter – should be removed from the starting lineup in order to add more shooting, but it just might be necessary. Regardless, he’ll still get his minutes (and his shots) as a part of Bud’s 3-big rotation.

Beyond that, the Bucks have a few days to soul-search and figure out just what they need to do in order to fuel their offense to keep up with Boston. The defense is where it needs to be, and dedicated effort must continue to be applied in order to limit the Celtics’ offensive attack. As long as that holds up, Milwaukee just needs to make a few changes to better place the ball into the basket, and with a pair of games at Fiserv Forum coming up, the Bucks are in good position to establish a significant advantage in the series.

Now they just have to do it.