The Boston Celtics spent days leading up to Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks preparing for a different task than the one they’d just completed. The Bucks, unlike the Brooklyn Nets, are a massive, physical, defense-first squad. While Brooklyn was forced to play three guards no taller than 6-foot-3 due to injuries, Milwaukee responded to Khris Middleton’s injury by starting three bigs, none of whom were under 6-10.
The Celtics had reason to be optimistic about their attack. They had averaged 118.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-best number in the league, over the last 43 games of the regular season, a timeframe in which they went 33-10, before defeating the undersized, overmatched Nets by scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions in four games. Milwaukee has multiple high-level defenders, but coach Ime Udoka stated shortly before Game 1 that “we feel we have favourable matchups as well on some of their guys.”
Then Boston played its worst offensive game in over six months, scoring 89 points per 100 possessions to start the series. The Celtics’ only worse performance this season came against the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 22, when they lost by 32 points and were booed by their home crowd.
It’s one thing to realise logically that every time you bring the ball up, you’ll be put to a more difficult test. It’s one thing to get on the court and sense it, but it’s quite another to actually experience it.
“I think their physicality caught us off guard more than anything,” Udoka said after the 101-89 loss.
In some ways, Udoka said, “it’s good to get this stinker out of the way offensively — I think losing a 12-point game when we played that terribly offensively speaks well for us.”
The Celtics’ defence in the halfcourt was excellent. They defended the inside, made Milwaukee to fire from the midrange, and kept Giannis Antetokounmpo to 24 points on 9-for-25 shooting. When they had the ball, however, they couldn’t get into a rhythm, at least until a fourth-quarter period in which they hit a string of open 3-pointers on successive possessions, by which time it was far too late.