How The Celtics Buckled Giannis and the Bucks in Game 1

Kyrie Irving and the Celtics methodically dispatched Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in their first Eastern Conference semifinals matchup.
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The Celtics drew first blood in their East semifinal series against the Bucks on Sunday, taking the opening game of the matchup 112–90 in a dominant performance. Boston flashed the brilliance that made it a popular Finals pick before the season, with Kyrie Irving scoring 26 points on 12-of-21 shooting and Al Horford making impactful plays on both ends of the floor. Milwaukee obviously struggled, putting together one of its most inefficient performances of the season. Here’s how the Celtics pulled off the win:

• Giannis Antetokounmpo was held in check. The Greek Freak ended the game with 22 points, connecting on only 33.3% of his field goals. Giannis was a ghastly minus-24 in Game 1, and he couldn’t compensate for his scoring struggles by creating for his teammates. How did Boston keep him bottled up? Horford was the key. His individual defense was spectacular. Horford sagged off Antetokounmpo on the perimeter, inviting largely fruitless drives toward the basket. Horford’s footwork was the perfect counter to Giannis’s athleticism, allowing him to stay in front of Antetokounmpo even as he barrelled to the hoop. Boston’s team defense was also rock solid. Giannis didn’t have many driving lanes in the first place, as the Celtics blatantly cheated off every other player on the floor, packing the paint and stopping Antetokounmpo from taking over the game on the inside. It was an incredibly disciplined performance, and the execution will be a high-wire act for the entire series, but Boston’s defensive gameplan worked perfectly in Game 1. The bulk of Horford (and briefly Aron Baynes) gave Giannis fits, and the Bucks couldn’t adjust.  

• Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s role players couldn’t pick up for its struggling star. The Bucks did get decent looks from the outside, but couldn’t hit those shots as the defense loaded up on Antetokounmpo. Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, George HIll, and Pat Connaughton combined to shoot 4-of-26 from three. Milwaukee didn’t shoot a terrible percentage overall, but that group couldn’t capitalize on good opportunities from beyond the arc. If they can’t hit threes, Boston’s defense will only be more emboldened to focus on Giannis and muck up the paint. The Bucks simply need to take advantage of all the open threes the Celtics conceded Sunday, and they’ll be in much better shape moving forward.

•  Boston’s offense thrived. The Celtics shot 41.9% from three, and also got some impressive shotmaking from Irving and Gordon Hayward. Boston scored 30 points from midrange Sunday, some of which came from open looks, with a good chunk also coming from Irving fadeaways. Irving and Hayward were both adept a breaking down Milwaukee’s defense and foraying into the paint, and that opened the floor for their shooters. Horford hit a couple threes off of pick-and-pops, while the likes of Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown also benefited from penetration with open looks. Irving’s tough shotmaking in particular stood in stark contrast to Antetokounmpo, the latter of whom didn’t have a counter when the paint was walled off. Many of Irving’s makes were of the tip-your-cap variety. Milwaukee would probably accept those shots again, but Boston’s roster is suited for this style of basketball.

• How does Milwaukee get back in the series in Game 2? Making open threes will certainly help. Khris Middleton also will need to get going. Middleton wasn’t much of a factor Sunday outside of a brief spurt during the second quarter. Having him initiate the offense more often could not only jumpstart his offense, but also take pressure off Antetokounmpo from having to go one-on-five. Middleton’s game is in some ways better suited for halfcourt offense in the playoffs compared to Giannis, and he didn’t have the ball in his hands enough in Game 1. The Bucks did have their moments in transition, but Boston did a good job of slowing the pace. Playing faster would benefit Milwaukee as well, which could mean Mike Budenholzer should experiment more with smaller lineups. Bud’s nine-man rotation may need to be trimmed either way—more minutes for Nikola Mirotic, and less for Connaughton could be a start.  

• The Celtics probably can’t expect to shoot as well in Game 2. They punched above their weight from both three and the field overall Sunday. Irving will always be capable of making difficult shots, however. And Jayson Tatum was silent in Game 1, scoring only four points and recording one assist in 30 minutes. A return to form from Tatum could offset any shooting regression.