Sunday, May 22, 2022

Celtics-Bucks: After buckling under pressure in Game 1, Boston must show how far offense has come

Turnovers were the main problem for the Boston Celtics on Sunday, but that issue alone does not explain their worst offensive showing since October. In their series-opening loss, they faltered when faced with the Milwaukee Bucks‘ pressure, forcing tough shots when easier ones were available.

It was “a little bit different,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Monday, to encounter a defense so committed to picking up full court. There was nothing surprising, however, about the way the Bucks protected the paint, or the way they showed a crowd to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

“The way we reacted to it was not our best, obviously,” Udoka said.

Boston shot 18 for 50 (36 percent) from 3-point range and 10 for 34 (29.4 percent) inside the arc. It’s not that the Celtics necessarily attempted too many 3s; it’s that too many of them were contested. Milwaukee baits opponents into settling for decent looks early in the shot clock, rather than working for great ones. Udoka wants his team to drive against close-outs, especially when the Bucks’ bigs are caught in rotation, and to move the ball.

In other words, getting all the way into the paint and kicking it out for a clean, in-rhythm 3 is awesome. These ones are only OK:

And these are just bad:

When Boston went over the film, Udoka said, the coaching staff told the players that they don’t have to force anything from long distance. If they attack the basket and play the second side, the 3s will come. 

“We shouldn’t have to take any contested 3s in this series because of how they guard,” he said. “You’ll get your wide-open looks.” 

Often the Celtics did attack, but made poor decisions once they got into the paint, needlessly trying to shoot over Milwaukee’s long, outstretched arms. 

“I think at times it felt like all [the] guys tried to do it a little bit on their own, attacking their shot-blockers when we know this is a heavy-rotation team and we have outlets all over the court,” Udoka said. “So we took a look at those and saw all the opportunities we missed.”

Almost no one was blameless. Tatum missed an open Brown in the corner after splitting a pick-and-roll, was bailed out by Robert Williams III taking a floater in traffic and twice complained about not getting a call when trying to finish around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez:

Brown attempted a wild hook from outside the dotted line with Lopez helping and missed Grant Williams open in the corner on two possessions, one of which ended with Brown charging into Antetokounmpo, the other with Payton Pritchard missing a step-back 3: 

Smart repeatedly drove into Antetokounmpo and Lopez looking for fouls, twice missing off the glass and once picking up a foul himself: 

Derrick White turned down an open 3 for an awkward runner, and a few minutes later Lopez rejected Grant Williams on an ill-advised attempt from the same spot on the floor: 

The mistake, Udoka said, was “playing in a crowd,” and “not seeing our outlets, our drop-offs — they were all open, all over the court.” The Celtics freed shooters with flare screens a few times in Game 1, and maybe they’ll run more post-ups for their primary options in Game 2, but the most important thing they can do is get back to the way they’ve been playing. 

“We just gotta make the right plays, take what they give up,” Robert Williams III said. “Obviously they’re a great defensive team, they play together. But just make the right reads, the easy reads.”

Boston spent much of the season trying to break bad habits, and its Its 33-10 rampage through the final three months was as much about its wildly improved offense as its mildly improved defense. That run began right after a blown lead in New York and a post-game press conference in which Udoka said the team lacked poise and mental toughness. 

The Celtics became an elite offensive team largely because of Tatum’s growth as a playmaker for others, but also because they collectively became more connected. At the trade deadline, the addition of White and subtraction of Dennis Schroder nudged them toward quicker decisions and extra passes.

White said that, on Tuesday in Game 2, Boston needs to be “more steady,” avoid rushing, run its sets and trust that open shots will fall. When teams load up on Tatum and Brown, they have to “let everybody else be a recipient of your attention,” Udoka said, adding that “what they’ve been great at this year is growing in that area.” 

A top-flight defense can bring out its opponent’s worst tendencies, or it can force its opponent to find the best version of itself. This is the Celtics’ chance to show how far they’ve come. 

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