Facing what amounted to a must-win Game 2 Tuesday night, the Celtics bounced back with a 109-86 victory over the Bucks in Boston.
Jaylen Brown scored a game-high 30 points in a wire-to-wire win that evened the Eastern Conference semifinals series at 1-1. But after getting beaten so handily in the series opener, how did the Celtics flip the script, and what can be taken from it?
After getting floored, Boston got off the deck and hit back
“Every game isn’t gonna be perfect,” Jayson Tatum said. “We’re playing against the defending champions. They punched us in the mouth first game. I knew we were going to be ready tonight from a competitiveness standpoint. Making adjustments from game to game, I think that’s what the playoffs are about.”
After playing bully ball to sweep the Nets in the first round, they got bullied by the defending champs. But unlike Brooklyn, Boston showed they have a chin.
“We adjusted well. We learned some things from Game 1 and felt like we knew we didn’t react accordingly to the way that we’re playing,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka admitted. “Two big teams but we haven’t been outmuscled like that all year. I think our guys took pride in that, took that to heart and we knew we would come out with the right effort tonight.”
The Celtics didn’t just hit; they hit first
Boston ran out to a quick 7-0 lead to get the TD Garden crowd going and never looked back. After a disappointing 12-point outing in the opener, Brown came out and set the physical tone from the opening tip, fighting and wrestling for control of the jump ball.
Brown got a shooter’s bounce on a jumper, then stole a Giannis Antetokounmpo pass. Al Horford hit a shot and then stole the ball from Jrue Holiday. Brown’s left-corner 3 made it 7-0.
The lead reached 18-3, and Boston cruised from there.
“We were pissed off in how we played last game and from top to bottom, we knew that we just had to play better,” Tatum said. “Simple as that.”
The defense never rested
Boston had the league’s best defense in the second half of the regular season, and it was on display Tuesday night, especially on Antetokounmpo.
The two-time league MVP did score 28 points; but he was held to 11 of 27 shooting with six turnovers.
The Celtics were guilty of over-helping on the Greek Freak’s post-ups and isolations in Game 1, especially on the wings. The result was Antetokounmpo’s teammates getting 14 uncontested looks, and hitting 12 of 18 shots off his passes with seven 3-pointers. But Boston corrected all that Tuesday.
Udoka has a reputation as a defensive mastermind and furthered it in the win. The Celtics eschewed double-teams and trusted Grant Williams (and Al Horford) to deal with him one-on-one. He was able to slow Antetokounmpo, and with Milwaukee built to thrive off drive-and-kick 3s, Boston stayed home on shooters (especially with Khris Middleton out) to take that away.
The Bucks got up just 18 attempts from behind the arc, by far the fewest of Mike Budenholzer’s regime in Milwaukee. (Their low-water mark had been 22.)
“The guys on him, they’re solid, good defenders and then quite a bit of help,” Budenhozer said. “That’s where he’s just got to see and feel it — do we kick it and get more 3s or he’s got to finish against one-on-one defense. So, I think it’s a little bit of both. But Giannis, he always figures things out.”
The Celtics’ shot profile has always skewed heavily toward the mid-range, and they feasted there against Brooklyn in the first-round sweep. But when Milwaukee went big in Game 1 with Bobby Portis playing alongside Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, the Celtics got held to just 10 of 34 from 2-point range, breaking their prior franchise low of 14 for the regular or postseason, according to ESPN.
Udoka made it a point of emphasis Tuesday, and Brown came out and laid down a marker by drilling three quick middies early.
“We knew those are open,” Udoka said. “You don’t have to over penetrate and drive into the bigs and take the 3 only. We have two really elite mid-range shooters and we welcome those shots especially when they’re back in that drop.”
Boston made those defensive adjustments and held the Bucks to 86 points without Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, who was out with a right quad contusion. They’re expecting with Game 3 in Milwaukee not until Saturday that he can return by then.
“I don’t think it’s long-term,” Udoka said. “’With three days off we’re assuming he’ll be OK.’