In the Bucks’ victory, much of their offensive output came from as the result of a Boston miss that created a transition opportunity. Milwaukee’s offense can’t count on the Celtics’ offense being so bad again. Joe Prunty’s squad still hasn’t solved Brad Stevens’ defense.
High basketball IQ is to the Boston Celtics what length and athleticism are to the Milwaukee Bucks. Which is to say: It’s the focus the team has chosen to build its identity around. For all the injuries the Celtics are dealing with, it’s their defensive effort that might be the deathblow to the Bucks’ season.
Though the Bucks don’t really have big men who are a threat from outside on offense, the Celtics boast versatile big man Al Horford, who doesn’t wow you with athleticism, but also always seems to be in the right spot. He’s one of the NBA’s best pick-and-roll defender for bigs because he manages to use his size to make it hard for guards to get around him or create enough separation to get a shot off over top.
In this series, Horford is a luxury for Boston. Milwaukee doesn’t have any bigs (depending on how you define Giannis Antetokounmpo position-wise) that threaten to take over a game.
The Celtics are also uniquely qualified to defend Giannis (and, to a lesser extent, Khris Middleton and/or Malcolm Brogdon). The combination of rookie Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, specifically, gives Boston the ability to share Giannis defensive duties, constantly throw relatively fresh legs at the Greek Freak, and – maybe more importantly – creates a situation where Brad Stevens is still comfortable if one of those young wings gets in foul trouble.
In fact, using up Tatum and Brown’s fouls should almost be a priority for Boston. Giannis is a better free throw shooter than most of the other players that have dealt with a ‘hack-a-player” strategy, but Antetokounmpo is certainly at the point in his career where teams are inclined to be overly-aggressive against him.
As far as the guard(s) spot, the Celtics are literally hurting. But Terry Rozier is feisty and playing with a ton of confidence. He’s outplayed Eric Bledsoe thus far in the series. And Bledsoe has done little to prove that he’s the better player – something that would’ve seemed like common knowledge before the series tipped off.
Further, Boston’s defense functions on a team level as one of the best in basketball. Granted, there’s (still) a ton of talent on that roster, but Brad Stevens is apparently defensive basketball’s anti-Jason Kidd. From losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season to having to march on without Kyrie Irving or even Marcus Smart, the Celtics never really had low lows this season … at least compared to the Milwaukee Bucks’ roller coaster. For that, Stevens deserves all the credit. Boston still found a way to finish the regular season with the league’s top-rated defense, per Basketball-Reference.
On offense, Milwaukee’s iso-heavy sets play right into the Celtics’ defensive strengths. Boston anemic offensive output in Game 3 should be viewed as an outlier. They won’t be that bad again. The Bucks still need to figure out how to consistently score in the half-court. Something they didn’t really have to do in the middle of all the running they were allowed to do in Game 3.
The good news for the Bucks is that Boston probably isn’t as good as they showed in the first two games of the series. The bad news is the Celtics aren’t as bad as they were in Game 3. Joe Prunty and staff still need more tricks up their sleeve to change the tide of the series in the Bucks’ favor. As satisfying as Game 3 was for the Bucks, that performance needs to serve as a blueprint for how to negate Boston’s versatile defense, not serve as justification for easy it can be.