The Bucks just got stunned 112-90 by the Boston Celtics in the first game of their series in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. They were outplayed from the jump, and never looked close to winning the game outside of a stretch from the mid 2nd quarter to the early 3rd quarter where they fought back from a deficit to take a brief (and small) lead. The Celtics thoroughly beat them down in this one, and have now won home court advantage. Here are some takeaways from this game.
The Celtics are good
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but the Celtics are a very good team. They have lots of talent, they’re well coached, and they have generally performed better in the playoffs over the past few years. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, in particular, are battle-tested playoff veterans who always raise their games in the postseason. Both stars were spectacular in this one. Kyrie carried the Celtics on offense when they needed him, but mostly picked his spots, and used the weight of his shooting and scoring to create open looks for everyone else on the team. He also played smart, active defense, which is just a bonus.
Horford was the best player on the court. That can’t happen if the Bucks are to win the series. He defended Giannis perfectly, was a monstrous defender around the rim, and also closed out well to the Bucks’ shooters. On offense, he made his threes, bullied smaller Bucks defenders to get to the basket, and put his playmaking skills to good use. The Celtics got great contributions across the board, but Irving and Horford drove the Celtics’ victory, and the Bucks will need to play them better on both ends to win the series.
Coach Budenholzer needs to be better
The likely recipient of the 2018-2019 NBA Coach of the Year award did not have himself a very good day. The Celtics had a great gameplan to combat the Bucks, and executed it perfectly – but it was a predictable strategy, and one which Bud seemed to have no answers for. On offense, the Celtics ran a lot of Kyrie-Horford pick and rolls, knowing Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova are too slow to defend such an action. Kyrie or Horford either got open threes, or were able to attack closeouts, getting easy looks at the rim or moving the ball for their teammates to get looks from deep. The answer to this, or at least a potential answer, is to play young big man DJ Wilson more. Wilson is much quicker defending on the perimeter, and while he’s less stout in the post, the Bucks should live with Al Horford postups.
On offense, the Bucks repeatedly went to Giannis, even though the Celtics’ primary objective was to take away actions with him as the ballhandler. Instead of using him as the roll man with Bledsoe or Middleton, or in dribble hand offs, he repeatedly tried to work in the post, or attack the rim on his own. The Celtics built a wall in the paint, and instead of finding a way around the wall, the Bucks repeatedly rammed their heads into it. The Bucks looked underprepared on both ends.
In addition to the gameplan, the rotations in general were not in playoff form. The Bucks have utilized a deep rotation all season, and have received contributions from all over their roster. But in the playoffs, 9th and 10th men are usually a liability, and that was the case today. Ilyasova couldn’t create any looks offensively and was slow on defense. Pat Connaughton got attacked relentlessly on defense and threw up nothing but bricks on offense, yet he played 24 minutes. As bad as Eric Bledsoe was today, 25 minutes is simply not enough for him. He was the Bucks’ 2nd best player in the regular season, and he needs to play at least 35 minutes per game. The same goes for Giannis, who was similarly awful, yet got only 34 minutes. Those Connaughton and Ilyasova minutes need to go to Giannis, Bledsoe, and even Sterling Brown and DJ Wilson. They’re simply not cut out for a series against an opponent of this caliber.
Giannis and Bledsoe have to put their playmaking hats on
While Bud’s strategy and gameplan did not work, some of the Bucks’ putrid offense has to fall on the players. Giannis and Bledsoe are the Bucks’ two main ballhandlers, and both played poorly tonight on the offensive end. The two players combined for just six assists in this one compared to their regular season of 11.4. Some of that is on the Bucks’ shooters for missing looks, but Bledsoe and Giannis also played with blinders on offensively, driving frequently into heavy traffic and throwing up incredibly difficult shots at the rim when they had teammates open behind the arc. The Bucks’ offense has relied on drive and kick attacks all year, and today, the “kick” element was lacking. The Celtics are playing Giannis to score – the passing lanes are open for him if he’s looking for them. Look for passing on drives to be a central element to the Bucks’ film sessions in between Games 1 and 2.
The Celtics played exceedingly well in Game 1, while the Bucks played pretty poorly. Some of that will carry over to the rest of the series (Horford’s excellence in particular), but the Celtics won’t shoot as well from midrange, nor will Giannis struggle as much in the paint. The series is only beginning, and there are plenty of adjustments the Bucks can make to get themselves right back in the mix.