A Game 1 loss isn’t fatal by any means, but the Milwaukee Bucks have some things to think about.
The Boston Celtics didn’t just steal home court on Sunday, they did so in convincing fashion. They slowed the Bucks down to a crawl and bludgeoned them in a half-court fest. High-level shotmaking from Kyrie Irving (26-7-11) and Al Horford (20-11-3) led the way, while Jaylen Brown (19 points) and Gordon Hayward (13-4-5) mixed in buckets all over the floor.
On the other end, the Bucks just couldn’t get going. They shot 13-of-39 from three (33 percent), a mark roughly five percent higher than their regular season mark. It’s just hard to function when Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe and Ersan Ilyasova combine to shoot 1-of-13 from three. If not for some timely threes from Nikola Mirotic (3-of-4 on the day) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (3-of-5, mostly in the second half), things could’ve looked worse.
Some of the shooting on both ends could normalize as the series goes on. But it’s important not to attribute the entire loss to (a lack of) shooting luck. There are some obvious schematic adjustments the Bucks should make ahead of Game 2 to put them in a better position to succeed.
Attack early (or at least earlier) and often
The Bucks were the league’s third best half-court team during the regular season, scoring 1.005 points per possession via Synergy. Only the Golden State Warriors (1.02) and San Antonio Spurs (101.1) scored at a higher rate, and the Warriors were the only team with a higher adjusted field goal percentage (54.8) than the Bucks (53.5). They were a slightly more effective transition team (1.12 points per possession) behind Giannis’ Gyro-step.
It’s cliche, but the Bucks attacked with a purpose after possession changes. They ranked top ten in points per possession after misses and turnovers, per Inpredictable. When you have a cheat code leading the attack, forcing defenses into pick-your-poison situations is a smart way to generate easy looks.
The Celtics were fully prepared for Bucks. It was clear that there was an emphasis on “forming a wall” in transition, meaning they cut off the middle of the lane to deter early drives. Here’s a quick example:
That’s just fantastic execution by the Celtics. Horford waits for Giannis to come right at him. Brown is to Horford’s right to cut off a drive there, or at least a setup dribble to the Eurostep. Irving is to Horford’s left, and is in perfect position to reach in and disrupt the left-to-right spin Giannis likes to break out if he goes wide. Sure enough, Giannis attempts to drive left, goes to a tighter version of his spin, and is met at the rim by Horford.
While the Celtics did a great job there, it felt like Giannis was in second gear on that possession. We know he can cover miles of ground in a single bound, but the casual trot up court allowed the Celtics to set up shop. He needs to press the pedal down more in Game 2.
Take this play for example:
Giannis gets blocked there—honestly, he was fouled on the play—but the process is better. He gets down court quicker and attacks the middle before Horford could turn around a fully form the wall with Marcus Morris.
Oddly enough, that might’ve been the Bucks’ quickest attack in transition. The Bucks averaged 11.8 seconds per possession after turnovers in Game 1, 3.2 seconds slower than their regular season mark. You just can’t allow the Celtics to set up their defense as much as the Bucks did in Game 1.
More inverted pick-and-rolls
In addition to the Bucks’ transition struggles, they did a poor job creating the type of looks they feasted on during the regular season. The Celtics deserve a ton of credit for cramping the floor. Horford did a fantastic job on Giannis in single coverage, which really made things tough for the other Bucks.
Giannis has the talent to best Horford in those situations, but it would be easier to find a more favorable matchup to attack. That would force the Celtics to send help, and those rotations could open up the floor for everyone.
One thing the Bucks routinely did during the regular season was flip pick-and-rolls on their head. Traditionally, teams will have a big screen for a small; the Bucks would sometimes have a small (hi, Eric Bledsoe) screen for Giannis. Teams don’t want to switch that action for obvious reasons. This forces them to trap, drop, or send help elsewhere.
For some reason, the Bucks just didn’t go to that well very often. The most notable example came early in the second quarter:
Bledsoe does a masterful job of flipping the pick, effectively taking Aron Baynes and Terry Rozier out of the play. Morris helps to take away the drive, which should free Pat Connaughton for the three if not for Ilyasova chilling in the dunker spot. The strong contest from Brown ends up playing a role in the miss, but the process—having Bledsoe screen for Giannis—was sound.
Assuming the Bucks start Sterling Brown again, the Celtics will hide Irving on him. The Bucks should look to have Brown screen for Giannis to try to force that mismatch.
Use Boston’s digs against them
Again, it’s hard to overstate just how good of a job the Celtics did on shrinking the floor. The stout individual defense, in addition to quick digs from help defenders disrupted a plethora of Bucks drives.
But if the Celtics are going to sell out that aggressively, the Bucks need to make them pay off the ball.
That play looks like the exact opposite of “making them pay.” Middleton drives into a sea of green, then flips the ball to Giannis before falling to the ground. Giannis drives into that same sea of green and gets stripped.
But take a gander at the weak side of the floor.
While Middleton drives, Jayson Tatum digs on it. Bledsoe sneaks up behind Tatum in what looks like a hammer screen. He stays there for a beat while Giannis catches-and-drives. Sterling Brown finally gets the memo and starts relocating to the corner, but the Celtics have the ball by the time he really commits.
Brown isn’t an elite shooter, but a corner look from him is a better option than Middleton or Giannis trying to finish over three defenders.
The Celtics were pretty liberal about leaving Bledsoe during the game. He’s a willing screener as well. Utilize him in the same way.
Setting up hammers and flare screens is, at bare minimum, an easy way to make the Celtics think twice about sending aggressive help.
All stats are accurate through games played on April 28th
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.