The Milwaukee Bucks strike first in their Eastern Conference semifinal showdown against the Boston Celtics with an impressive 101-89 road win in Game 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way with a 24-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist triple-double as the Bucks steal home court away from Boston at TD Garden.
The Celtics led early, but the Bucks soon took control and didn't let up. Milwaukee held strong during a long stretch in the third when Giannis went to the bench with four fouls. Boston's offense, meanwhile, struggled miserably in the opener. The team finished 28 for 84 shooting (33 percent) in the loss, including just 10 2-point field goals. It suffered a scare when Marcus Smart left late in the second quarter with a shoulder stinger, but returned to what was a very physical contest.
The defending champions entered the series against Boston as underdogs. With Khris Middleton expected to miss the entire series, the Bucks still have a long way to go, but they took a big first step on Sunday by stealing home-court advantage. Game 2 is set for Tuesday. Here are three takeaways from Milwaukee's win:
1. Can Boston score within the arc?
Milwaukee's defense is designed to give up 3s. Bucks opponents took 40.6 3s per game in the regular season, and the gap between them and the second-place Thunder (at 38.7 per game) was bigger than the gap between those same Thunder and the seventh-place Knicks (37). That's the gambit of dogmatic drop coverage. The Bucks protect the basket even if it sacrifices shots from behind the arc. We knew that was their game plan from the moment they announced their starting lineup. Rather than follow the typical playoff model of downsizing, the Bucks went in the other direction and played big. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who played center for much of the season, started at small forward. Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez occupied the front court.
Milwaukee's strategy worked to perfection. Boston made 18 3s, a figure that will normally win practically any game. But by forcing them to take 50 of them, the Celtics scored virtually no easy points. In the entire game, they made just 10 2-point shots. That's the second-fewest ever in a playoff game, trailing only the 2017 Houston Rockets when they were eliminated by the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the second round. The Celtics barely even attempted mid-range shots, and unsurprisingly, lost both the free throw and rebounding battles.
The Celtics typically have a fairly balanced shot diet. They aren't excessively reliant on getting to the basket. But you cannot win playoff-level basketball games without getting easy points. The defense is too good to expect to rely solely on 3s. Milwaukee scored 21 more points off turnovers and 14 more points in the paint than Boston. Those numbers don't have to be even, but they have to be closer for Boston to have a chance. Offensively, they played right into Milwaukee's hands in Game 1.
2. Point Giannis
On paper, this looked like a bad matchup for Giannis Antetokounmpo. No team in the Eastern Conference has as many stout defenders to throw at the two-time MVP, and Robert Williams III and Al Horford generally did good jobs containing him. The Celtics will take 9-of-25 shooting out of Giannis under any circumstances. The problem the Celtics are going to have to solve, though, is that Antetokounmpo warps defenses to such a degree that even when his own shots aren't falling, he's having an enormous impact on his team's offense.
Giannis finished the game with 12 assists, the second-most of his playoff career. It was a fairly clear pattern for most of the game. Boston's defense would collapse to the paint when Giannis attacked, building the fabled wall that so many teams have succeeded with against him. Antetokounmpo shrugged, took the ball as far as he could, drew in every possible defender, and then kicked the ball back out to the perimeter. Points for the Bucks followed. At one point, he was feeling so generous that he even passed to himself.
Antetokounmpo is, in a sense, the reverse of Stephen Curry. Golden State's point guard tortures defenses by pulling them away from the basket, creating easy layups for his teammates as a result. Antetokounmpo's gravity is felt around the basket. He pulls so many defenders toward it that his teammates feast on open jumpers. Defenses have spent years trying to solve the Curry problem to no avail. That's where we are with Giannis. He's developed so much as a passer that there's no longer an effective way to defend to him.
3. Winning on the margins
Let's take a quick look at Milwaukee's role players:
- Wes Matthews played 29 minutes. He was available in December as a free agent.
- Grayson Allen also played 29 minutes. He was acquired in the offseason for two second-round picks.
- Jevon Carter played 22 minutes. Milwaukee won those minutes by 25 points. He was waived by Brooklyn in the middle of the season.
Acquiring stars is the hardest part of running an NBA team. Jon Horst swung the biggest trade in Bucks history when he landed Jrue Holiday, and he negotiated the biggest contract in team history when he re-signed Antetokounmpo in the 2020 offseason. But if winning a championship was just about accumulating stars, the Lakers and Nets would probably still be playing right now. What separates the good GMs from the great ones is the ability to find value on the margins.
If you're wondering why Miami is good almost every year, this is why. If you're wondering why Toronto is good almost every year, this is why. They tend to follow the more traditional route of developing youth, but the principle is the same. The Bucks generate value where other teams don't see it. That's how they've survived without Middleton, and that's how they're leading this series.