MILWAUKEE – The Boston Celtics could be angry, based on their belief that Marcus Smart was uncoiling to shoot a 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left and his team trailing 103-101 in Game 3 Saturday. (The NBA’s Last Two Minute Report released Sunday affirmed the original call, but from coach Ime Udoka on down, the Celtics still felt nah.)
The Celtics could be frustrated that Al Horford’s second tip to tie came just a hair after the final horn, allowing the Bucks to escape and take a 2-1 series lead.
What they need to be, though, is resolute that their failures in the third quarter have been faced, addressed and never will happen again.
That was the stretch when Boston lost the game. When the Celtics returned from halftime and turned their 50-46 lead into an 80-67 deficit. Milwaukee’s 34-17 scoring edge is the most lopsided of the 12 quarters played so far in the series.
How did it happen? With Boston’s unwitting or at least unintentional help.
Milwaukee scored more points on fast breaks in the third quarter than Boston scored, period. And the Bucks’ 18-0 edge in transition was fueled by their opponents’ mistakes and bad shots. The Celtics turned the ball over seven times in the third (compared to five the rest of the game), missed six of their seven 3-pointers and shot 6-for-20 overall.
Coughed-up balls, long rebounds and errant shots are lighter fluid when the other team wants to push the pace. It particularly undid Boston’s defensive plans against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“We kind of aided them,” Udoka told reporters Sunday. “If we keep them in the halfcourt, we feel really good about our team defense and individual defense on him,. But we kind of opened the floodgates in that third quarter. Got ’em going. He becomes more aggressive in the halfcourt.”
There’s a trend developing to support Udoka’s explanation: Milwaukee had 28 fast-break points in Game 1 and 21 in Game 3, both victories. It had just six in the 109-86 Game 2 loss.
According to data pulled by The Athletic via Cleaning The Glass, the Bucks’ halfcourt efficiency has been an anemic 75.6 points per 100 possessions in each of their wins.
When Antetokounmpo has been successful in the halfcourt, he and the Bucks have matchup hunted in their pick-and-roll plays, using the Celtics’ switches against them. For instance, Jaylen Brown isolated on Antetokounmpo is something no Boston fan ever wants to see again.
“At times everybody’s guarding him,” Udoka said of the Bucks’ star, who had 42 points on 16-of-30 shooting Saturday. “They’re targeting specific matchups. Our defense is based on our individual defenders.
“Understanding how he likes to score, we gambled at times and gave him open driving lanes. Keeping them off balance, giving him different matchups has worked well. And the main thing, honestly, is making them score in the halfcourt.”
Boston has other issues to address. While Smart is the NBA’s recently crowned Kia Defensive Player of the Year, his Milwaukee counterpart Jrue Holiday has continued to match him stop for stop. According to StatMuse, Holiday has locked down his playoff foes’ most potent scorers through eight games against the Bulls and Celtics.
Their field-goal percentages when guarded by Holiday: Zach LaVine (28.6%), Jayson Tatum (30%), DeMar DeRozan (38.1%) and Brown (38.5%). Overall, the players Holiday has guarded have shot 30.6%.
That makes up for his own 37.1% shooting. The strong point guard has been Milwaukee’s second-best scorer, filling injured Khris Middleton’s role, averaging 23 points on 23.3 field goal attempts.
The Celtics have made Holiday work at both ends, and that ratio of shots to points is fine with them. But it’s a reminder that this is the playoffs, where efficiency takes a back seat to physicality.
“He’s a physical guard that enjoys the contact,” Udoka said. “So smaller guys struggle with him. He doesn’t differentiate big wings, big men, and tries to go at everybody the same. That’s his game. He wants to feel your body. Kind of hit guys. He’s been that his whole career. We’ve got to be ready to embrace that.”
As for their own attack, there was nothing wrong in Game 3 with Brown scoring 27 points, Al Horford putting in 22 (four 3-pointers) and Derrick White adding 14 off the bench. Notice who’s missing though? Tatum, who shot a frosty 4-of-19, scoring 10 points while missing all six of his 3-pointers and getting only three free throws.
The lanky 24-year-old said he was “thinking too much” in Game 3, but to hear Udoka address it, Tatum was dribbling too deep into the Bucks’ defense and, especially late, passing up shots he normally would take.
A bounce-back game is more likely than not. Tatum was averaging 28.0 points through his first six playoff games this year, on the heels of 30.6 ppg and 25.7 ppg in the two previous postseasons.
“We understand how he’s being guarded by certain personnel on their team,” Udoka said. “They’re being extremely physical on the perimeter with him.
“It’s a team effort. We didn’t set screens great for him Game 3 as opposed to Game 2. Game 1 wasn’t great either. … But he also has to be patient to set his man up and use the screen. It’s a full team thing.”
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