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The Celtics and Bucks Are Playing 3-and-D Chess

Boston and Milwaukee look like they are headed for a long series, and one that will likely be decided from the perimeter. While the Celtics are firing from deep at a historic rate, the Bucks are still prioritizing the paint. How both teams counter next could help decide the semifinal winner.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ever since Mike Budenholzer became their head coach, the Bucks have prioritized one thing above all else: protecting the paint. Milwaukee has ranked in the top five in preventing shot attempts at the rim for four seasons running, leveraging the size of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo to turn the restricted area, the most valuable real estate on the court, into a no-fly zone. There’s a trade-off that comes with selling out to seal off the basket, though: Milwaukee has ranked in the bottom five in preventing 3-point attempts for four straight seasons, consistently allowing more above-the-break triples than any other team in the NBA.

Coach Bud and Co. are (mostly) fine with that. It’s a calculated wager: If we can keep you from getting point-blank looks that the league makes about 66 percent of the time (which works out to about 1.3 points per possession), and force you to take the non-corner deep shots that the average team makes only about 35 percent of the time (about 1.05 points per possession), we’ll win a lot more often than we lose. It’s a math problem that, along with Antetokounmpo emerging as maybe the best player in the world, has helped propel the Bucks to the NBA’s best record over the past four seasons, and to the 2020-21 NBA championship.

It also helped Milwaukee jump out to a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With the Bucks tripling down on the benefits of hugeness by inserting the 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis in the injured Khris Middleton’s place in the starting lineup, the Celtics took 50 of their 84 shots in Game 1 from 3-point range—by far the highest 3-point attempt rate in Boston’s postseason franchise history. They made 18 of them, which is a lot … but, as it turns out, not enough when the opposition smothers you and allows just 35 points inside the arc.

Given how out of character it was for Boston—a team that took 39 percent of its shots from deep during the regular season, and 38 percent in its four-game sweep of the Nets—to lean so triple-heavy in Game 1, you’d expect the C’s to come out for Tuesday’s Game 2 a bit less interested in just casting away. Right?

As it turns out, not so much:

The Celtics came out firing again on Tuesday, launching six long balls in the first seven and a half minutes of Game 2; this time, though, they drilled five of them. After Grant Williams side-stepped his way into an open 3 with 4:36 to go in the first, Boston led by 15; the Bucks would never even get within single digits the rest of the way, as the Celtics went wire-to-wire to return serve with a 109-86 win behind a franchise-postseason-record 20 3-pointers on 43 attempts … which, by the way, once again constituted more than half of Boston’s total shots.

The split might not always be this extreme, but the Bucks’ scheme will continue forcing the Celtics into a steady diet of 3s, and limiting their opportunities on the interior. Boston has to make sure as many of those looks as possible, both inside and out, are clean ones generated through a combination of aggression, patience, spacing, and ball movement.

“In the first game, we did kind of a poor job just getting rushed, just kind of forcing shots up,” Williams told reporters after the game. “The first 3 that we saw that was open, we shot no matter if there was three people flying at us. So tonight, we just knew that the more we moved it, the more opportunity that would be open.”

Celtics star Jayson Tatum told reporters that the team had emphasized trying to string together drive-and-kick sequences, believing that even if nothing opens up on the first attempt at penetration, repeated side-to-side movement could punch some holes in Milwaukee’s staunch defense. And it worked: Boston finished with 28 assists on 38 made field goals, including helpers on 18 of those 20 3-balls, many of them coming off dribble penetration to draw help followed by a kickout to an open shooter or a swing to a teammate who could expand the advantage with another drive or extra feed.

The Celtics scored just 0.73 points per 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 for Marcus Smart, who sat with a right thigh contusion) all dropped multiple dimes after beating their man into the paint and collapsing the defense. If they can find ways to keep that drive-and-kick machine humming—more ball screens near half court to pick off pressing defenders like Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter and give ball handlers a runway seems like a good idea—then they might be able to wring out enough interior points to stay afloat. Especially if that shot-making comes paired with careful ballhandling (only four of Boston’s turnovers were live-ball cough-ups), a command of the defensive glass (just five offensive rebounds for Milwaukee, after 10 in Game 1), and attentive transition defense:

And especially if they can keep making Milwaukee feel the pain of being on the other end of the math problem: After shooting 12-for-34 from distance in Game 1, the Bucks went just 3-for-18 from 3-point land in Game 2—their fewest attempts or makes in any single game in the Budenholzer era. One big reason? Celtics coach Ime Udoka switched up Boston’s approach to guarding Giannis.

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.

Without Middleton—Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer, no. 3 assist man, and highest-volume 3-point marksman—Antetokounmpo has to boss the game 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, though, is that when Giannis hits a rough patch, it’s not as easy to get him on track without Middleton available to serve as his ballhandling partner in the pick-and-roll.

Not as easy, but not impossible. Antetokounmpo did get going in the second half, scoring 23 of his 28 points after intermission. He found success by attacking mismatches he liked, both by drawing switches onto guards and, at times, Celtics shot swatter Robert Williams III:

When he worked for deep post position on Horford and Grant Williams, rather than just trying to isolate on them up top, he had an easier time finding an angle of entry:

And during a mid-fourth-quarter run that cut the deficit down to 12, Giannis went to work with Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen in two-man actions with the strong-side corner emptied out, giving the guards a runway into the paint off the bounce and Giannis a clean roll into space:

One common thread in nearly all of those plays: Giannis is playing with one other big, and in some cases as the only big, as Budenholzer looked to juice an offense that had spent most of Game 2 stuck in the mud. Lineups featuring Giannis, Lopez, and Portis have scored a ghastly 60.4 points per 100 possessions against Boston through two games, compared to 100.0 points-per-100 when Giannis and Lopez play without Portis, and an even more impressive 111.8 points-per-100 when Giannis and Portis play without Lopez. As effective as the three-big look was against Chicago in Round 1, Bud might need to consider shaking things up to put more shooting and playmaking on the floor, and to better maximize Giannis against an elite defense with more weapons to throw at him than any other team in the league.

Downsizing could imperil Milwaukee’s ability to adhere to Bud’s first principle of locking down the paint above all else. Even if they have the best rim protection in the world, though, the Bucks aren’t winning many games that include Antetokounmpo scoring five points in a half. Whether or not Boston makes 20 3s, Milwaukee’s best chance is to make the most out of its biggest mathematical advantage: The Bucks have one more Giannis than you do.