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One of the greatest challenges the Boston Celtics have faced in Round 2 has been matching the Milwaukee Bucks' bruising physicality while also being disciplined enough not to foul.
Defending without fouling was one of Boston’s strongest areas during the regular season, as it was whistled for the fifth-fewest fouls per game (18.5) in the NBA. During this round, however, the C’s have been called for 23.5 fouls per game, the highest mark among all eight conference semifinalists.
Game 4 marked the second time this series that Boston had been whistled for 25 fouls after reaching that mark just three times throughout the entire regular season. All eight Celtics who played in Monday night’s series-tying win were whistled for at least two fouls and all five starters were called for at least three.
This increase isn’t due to reckless defending but more so because of the team Boston is facing. Milwaukee is loaded with physical offensive weapons – guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday who attack downhill, and guys like Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis who serve as bruisers around the post.
Jaylen Brown learned that the hard way in Game 4, as he had to sit out a good chunk of the second half while in foul trouble. As disciplined of a defender as he is, having not fouled out of a game in more than two years, he had trouble avoiding the whistle and logged five fouls under his belt before the fourth quarter even began. Fortunately, he was able to make it through the fourth quarter foul-free as Boston pulled out the win.
“I don’t even remember the last time I might’ve been in foul trouble to that level,” Brown said at Wednesday morning’s shootaround ahead of Game 5 in Boston. “You just do the best you can. You want to still maintain a level of aggression on defense but, at the same time, you want to be careful because you don’t want to not be in the game and not be able to help the team.”
Brown says the key to avoiding such trouble is to “find a healthy balance” where they are physical enough, while not breaking any rules. The Celtics did so down the stretch in Game 4, as they stormed back from an 11-point deficit to pull out a 116-108 win. After committing 21 fouls in the first three quarters, Boston was whistled just four times during the final frame.
“Last game was tough, but we didn’t lose faith, I didn’t lose faith,” said Brown. “My team, they came out, executed, played big down the stretch, bought me some time – was able to get back into the game and help us close it out. So just playing Celtic basketball is what it comes down to. We’ve got a lot of different ways we can win games. We just gotta come out, accept the challenge physically from Milwaukee and come out and execute.”
Brown admits that this is one of the most physical series that he’s ever played in. It takes a special group of defenders to hold their ground against such a tough team and, with all things considered, the Celtics have done a solid job so far.
“It’s definitely a high level of physicality out there, and that’s not for everybody,” said Brown. “You’ve got to come game-in, game-out, and be ready to fight at every position. Their guards are physical and tough. Holiday is probably one of the strongest guards in the league. Giannis, Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez – all very physical players.”
Four games in, the Celtics are still learning how to defend those players with as much discipline as possible. Despite the high foul numbers thus far, it seems that they have found a somewhat healthy balance. They have matched Milwaukee’s physicality, which has allowed them to also match the Bucks in wins.
Maintaining such balance will be key Wednesday night, as Boston will have a chance to grab a 3-2 lead on its home court.