The Milwaukee Bucks were exceptionally well prepared for the Boston Celtics in a stifling Game 1 win that warped the terrain of the series.
They appeared to anticipate Boston slotting its center (Robert Williams III) onto Wesley Matthews, a potential alignment I mentioned in my preview — but one I did not expect Boston to use right away. On the Bucks’ second possession, they had Matthews screen for Jrue Holiday — testing how the Celtics wanted Williams handling pick-and-rolls, and whether he could stay in front of Holiday on a switch.
Holiday roasted him, drew help, and flicked the ball to Giannis Antetokounmpo for a hammer dunk.
On defense, the Bucks slotted Holiday onto Marcus Smart and Matthews on Jayson Tatum — allowing them to switch the Smart-Tatum two-man game. That meant Antetokounmpo would defend Jaylen Brown, and Milwaukee in past matchups preferred to keep Antetokounmpo away from Brown and Tatum — to spare him some energy, and have him on the back line.
Antetokounmpo embraced the new assignment. This series could end up the greatest testament so far to the subtle, gradual improvements Antetokounmpo has made at the edges. Even a season ago, he could not have dominated a high-stakes playoff game to the same degree — could not have been easily the best player — while shooting 9-of-25 and making only six free throws.
When the Bucks downsized midway through the first quarter — with Bobby Portis resting — they rejiggered matchups so that Grayson Allen was on Smart. Boston went immediately to the Smart-Tatum pick-and-roll, hoping to get Allen switched onto Tatum. It even had Tatum sprint out of the pick without really setting it — hoping to surprise the Bucks.
It failed. The Bucks read the play, and stayed home.
Milwaukee’s focus, size, and physicality seemed to unnerve Boston after a week against the smaller Brooklyn Nets. Even Brown and Tatum — 10-of-31 combined in Game 1, with as many total turnovers (10) as free throw attempts — appeared skittish upon arriving in the lane and seeing very large humans awaiting them.
The Celtics can rationalize some optimism for Game 2. Brown and Tatum cannot play much worse. The Bucks won Game 1 by scoring off Boston’s 18 turnovers, and a decent chunk of those who were sloppy and borderline unforced. The Celtics hit 36% on 3s — about league average. They’d love to be better considering Milwaukee is leaving everyone but Brown, Tatum, and Payton Pritchard wide open, but 36% should be good enough if the Celtics clean up other areas. (Derrick White passing up open 3s is becoming a major concern. If Smart is limited in Game 2 — or can’t go at all — Boston needs more from White and Pritchard.)
Boston’s shot distribution is more alarming: 50 3s, and 34 2s. Even the peak Daryl Morey Houston Rockets are concerned.