On Sunday, behind an outstanding defensive performance, the Milwaukee Bucks wrested Game 1 from the Celtics in Boston. The C’s will be desperate to right the ship on Tuesday night (7:30pm Eastern; 12:30am UK), to avoid going back to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4 facing a massive 2-0 deficit.
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Milwaukee Bucks team news
At a glance, the Bucks were far from their best offensively in Game 1. However, a closer look reveals that the team’s rough shooting was attributable to Giannis Antetokounmpo (9-of-25 for his 24 points), Brook Lopez (3-of-7) and Wesley Matthews (2-of-7). Outside of that trio’s 14-of-39, Jrue Holliday, Bobby Portis Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Javon Carter shot nearly 50% from the floor and an outstanding 12-of-24 from behind the 3-point line. Holiday in particular was fantastic, stepping up with 25 points (he made 3-of-five 3-pointers), nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, as was Portis, who scored 15 on 12 shots, and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Despite his struggles from the field, Giannis was very much present and accounted for when it mattered. At the end of the first half, with the Bucks having battled back from an early ten-point deficit, he scored eight straight to send his team into halftime with a ten-point lead of their own. Later, in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics within eight and looking to mount a run, in a three-and-a-half-minute span, he assisted on a Portis 3-pointer and a Carter jumper and scored four points himself, punctuated by a spectacular and audacious pass to himself off of the backboard for a thunderous two-handed dunk that extended the Bucks’ lead to sixteen, and all but put the game to bed. By the time all was said and done, the Greek Freak had 24 points, 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and, vitally, 12 assists.
Therein lies the problem for Boston. On their home floor, with a raucous home crowd and the momentum of 26 wins in 31 games behind them, holding one of the front runners for league MVP to under 40% from the field… that’s a recipe for victory. Instead, the Celtics were only briefly within ten points during the fourth quarter.
That’s because the Bucks played a phenomenal hard-nosed game, with three members of the starting five (Giannis, Portis and Lopez) grabbing double-digit rebounds (and Holiday had nine), swiped 11 steals as a team, blocked five shots and defended with outstanding discipline. In all, the Bucks held the Celtics to an abysmal 33.3% from the field, and forced 18 turnovers. And while the C’s did make a decent 36% of their 3-point attempts, the Bucks’ interior defense so completely thwarted all ventures into the lane (Boston was a ghastly 8-of-28 from the paint for the game) that the Celtics were forced into a franchise-playoff-record (and totally uncharacteristic) fifty 3-point attempts.
Boston’s dynamic duo, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, meanwhile, combined for a disappointing 33 points (Tatum had 21; Brown had 12 points), on an awful 10-of-31 from the floor, while combining for ten assists and ten turnovers – a whopping seven of which belonged to Brown. Outside of those two, only Al Horford (12 points), Marcus Smart (10) and substitute Derrick White (10) scored in double figures – but made only 9 of 28 shots in the process.
With all of that said, it’s important not to overreact. The Celtics are still an excellent team with a fantastic coach and a defining identity, in the midst of an outstanding run of form. It’s more than reasonable to expect a better performance from them in Game 2. Ime Udoka is one of the best coaches in the NBA, and he will surely make adjustments geared both toward stopping the Bucks supporting cast, and toward facilitating Tatum and Brown on offense. Unfortunately, he’ll have to do it with Defensive Player of the Year and key playmaker Marcus Smart banged up (thigh bruise and a shoulder similar suffered in Game 1; though he will play).
Bucks predicted starting lineup: Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, Bobby Portis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Notable injuries: Khris Middleton (knee; out); George Hill (abdomen; out)
Celtics predicted starting lineup: Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Robert Williams
Notable injuries: Marcus Smart (thigh, shoulder; expected to play)
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Prediction: Milwaukee Bucks (+4.5) points, with at least 53 points + rebounds + assists for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Just one game in, the Celtics’ margin for error is barely existent. A loss in Game 2 will send them to Milwaukee for two games against the defending champs, on their home court, in front of an amped-up crowd, all of whom will be smelling blood in the water. I’ll stop short of calling this game ‘do or die’, but it is about as close as it gets.
Against that backdrop, the failure to capitalize on Giannis’ offensive struggles in Game 1 will loom large. Betting on Giannis to struggle similarly in Game 2 is, well, unwise. If we assume a bounce-back to 50% shooting (well below his season mark) and something close to his season average of roughly 30 points, with similar output from the remainder of the Bucks – remember, Holiday and Portis were good, they’re weren’t transcendent; and Matthews and Lopez will do no worse than a combined 11 points – and another excellent showing on defense (we have no reason to expect otherwise), the Celtics are facing an uphill battle.
Boston may well win Game 2, but it’s unlikely that any such victory will be a comfortable one. Thus, once again, the smart move seems to be ‘Milwaukee plus the points’, with Giannis putting up a monstrous stat line – this time let’s say at least 53 points + rebounds + assists.