MILWAUKEE – Few things lend themselves to overreactions more than a swing in playoff outcomes. And the participants know it the same as the spectators.
“The emotions of the playoffs are so crazy,” Milwaukee Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said Friday afternoon. “You win Game 1, ‘Ah, we’re gonna sweep ‘em.’ You lose Game 1, it’s ‘Aw, told you – Celtics in 5.’ That’s just the nature of how this is.”
The scoreboard can fuel that pendulum effect with double-digit switcheroos of the sort the Bucks and the Boston Celtics posted in the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
In the opener, the Celtics lost 101-89 at TD Garden and looked as if they were paper tigers. The NBA’s hottest team since Jan. 1, so impressive in sweeping Brooklyn in the first round, seemed to have misstepped up in weight class against defending champion Milwaukee.
So when Boston guard Marcus Smart, the league’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year, was scratched from Game 2 with a right thigh bruise, that personnel blow plus the Bucks’ championship pedigree suggested a quick exit for the Celtics. Wrong. Boston reconfigured itself offensively and especially defensively, and spanked the Bucks 109-86 and shifted the doubt and angst to Milwaukee.
Spacing out Games 2 and 3 with three off days for the shift from Boston to Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum probably has been a mixed blessing for the teams. Rest and recovery always are good this deep into a season. But all that time in between games can dial up the temptation to tinker too much. Particularly for the team that most recently lost.
“That could obviously happen,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “You do really want to be true to who your team is. We are making adjustments – don’t get me wrong, we’re making changes going into Game 3. But I definitely think there are things, especially offensively, that we got away from that are kind of ingrained in our team DNA.”
One easy bit of slippage was with Lopez himself. The veteran 7-footer scored a season-low two points and took only two shots, the fewest since November 2011 in his rookie season.
When Milwaukee was up against it last postseason in the conference final vs. Atlanta – Giannis Antetokounmpo abruptly sidelined by that hyperextended knee – Lopez stepped into the void. He went from 7 points on 3-for-6 shooting in Game 4 to 33 points on 14-for-18 in Game 5 in his MVP teammate’s absence.
A performance even halfway to that would be a boost to the Bucks, who will be without All-Star scorer Khris Middleton (knee) for at least two more games.
“I’ll always take my opportunities when they come and try to be aggressive,” Lopez said. “At the same time, it’s important for us to be the team we’ve been this whole time and keep our offensive identity intact.”
He added: “I think we all just have to be more aggressive when we do get the ball. When Giannis does a DHO [dribble handoff], our guys have to turn the corner, look to score, look to dunk the ball. Not just make kind of a passive play.”
Milwaukee, still giving up a playoff-low 96.3 points per game, isn’t inclined to mess with its defensive identity either. Sheer regression suggests Boston’s shooters won’t make 20 of 43 3-pointers again or the Bucks will hit only three of 18. In two games, the Celtics have outscored them on 3s by 69 points.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown went from 33 points on combined 10-for-31 shooting in Game 1 to 59 points on 21-for-38 in Game 2. Al Horford was strong with 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Grant Williams off the bench chipped in 21 points thanks to his 6-for-9 from the arc.
Boston made a point in Game 2 of moving the ball well enough to collapse Milwaukee’s defense, then finding its snipers on the perimeter. There’s another thing on which the Bucks hope to improve.
“The more we can keep the ball in front of us,” Matthews said, “the more we can stay out of rotations – we got into rotations a lot. Our effort was there, our work was there but hats off to them. They shot the hell out of the ball, they moved the ball [28 assists on 38 buckets]. Obviously the ball is faster than a man. When they’re flying the ball around and we’re flying around, the advantage is going to be with them.”
But as Matthews saw it, the Celtics shot unusually well. Nothing to which his team should overreact.
“We’re not going to get too crazy,” he said. “What we can’t tolerate is the 86. We have to be better on the offensive end.”
Smart was listed Friday as probable to play in Game 3, which seems a bonus now given the job Horford, Williams and coach Ime Udoka’s blueprint did against Antetokounmpo in particular. The Greek Freak’s counting numbers are good – 26 ppg, 11 rpg, 9.5 apg – but his efficiency is way off, shooting 38.5% in the two games. He has made only one of his six 3-point attempts and missed nine of his 20 free throws.
Guard Jrue Holiday, pressed into service as the Bucks’ second-best scorer, has averaged 22 points in the series but has shot 15-for-40. Milwaukee has only perked up offensively when going with a group of guards around Lopez, but having Antetokounmpo off the floor is not a winning strategy.
“Giannis is great player, Jrue is a great player,” coach Mike Budenholzer said after Game 2. “Those guys are going to make plays. [We] have all the faith in the world in those two guys. They found some opportunities and they’ve just got to find more of ’em. Collectively we’ve got to be better and we will be.”
Both Boston and Milwaukee, then, have reasons not to overreact. At least for another game.
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