Against the Nets’ “defense,” the Celtics’ offense looked elite in their first-round series, with a net rating of 120.7 — a number that would have been the best in the regular season by 3 points per 100 possessions.
That may have been a mirage.
That was a problem. Boston’s other big problem? Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in basketball, and while the Celtics’ defense did a respectable job on him, the two-time MVP still had 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. He also threw an alley-oop off the backboard to himself for a slam.
The result was a Bucks team picking up a Game 1 win on the road 101-89 — and doing it without Khris Middleton (whose status to return later in the series remains unclear). Milwaukee has a 1-0 series lead with Game 2 on Tuesday in Boston.
This was a defensive game and the Celtics did a good job making it difficult for Antetokounmpo to simply put his head down and get to the rim. Al Horford, in particular, had a strong defensive game matched up with the Greek Freak. However, in the past couple of seasons Antetokounmpo’s game has evolved — he’s an improved playmaker and found teammates for a dozen assists, plus he picked up six points on second-chance buckets.
However, it was the Bucks’ defense that frustrated the Celtics and won this game.
First, the Bucks are too disciplined to be easily forced into switches and mismatches, which the Celtics feasted on against the Nets. Boston didn’t move the ball well and the Bucks’ pressure on ball handlers seemed to fluster Celtics’ ball handlers.
Second, and more importantly, Boston’s offense played into the hands of the Milwaukee scheme.
The Bucks’ drop defense protects the paint first and baits teams into taking 3-pointers, making them susceptible to a hot-shooting team. However, it also makes their opponents one dimensional and a little easier to defend. The Celtics shot 18-of-50 from 3, a decent 36% as a team, but they were predictable jump shooters and the Bucks can live with that.
Boston looked rushed in the first half. Blame it on playoff nerves, but the Celtics hurried everything, including their shots — Tatum and Brown combined to shoot 5-of-18 in the half — and they turned the ball over nine times.
The Celtics’ offense looked good enough in the opening minutes, but that was primarily due to Horford. He had the Antetokounmpo assignment defensively and kept him in relative check, and on offense was the hub, moving the ball to open shooters. Boston opened up a seven-point lead in the first. But then the Bucks came out of a timeout upping their pressure on the Celtics ball handlers (especially the bench guys) and Boston turned the ball over multiple times and lost its momentum. Milwaukee closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run and had a 27-24 lead after one.
The Bucks timed their runs well — they closed out the first half on an 11-3 run to take a 56-46 lead into the half.
The Celtics can make adjustments to release some of the pressure from the Bucks’ defenders, and they can hit more of their 3s. But mostly, they have to get back to playing their game and not the one the Bucks want them to play.