NBA Playoffs 2018: Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton can’t beat Celtics by themselves
Frustrating as ever, Milwaukee trails Boston 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs
The Milwaukee Bucks are searching for answers. Coach Joe Prunty tried a 12-man rotation before garbage time in their 120-104 Game 2 loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, as finding lineups that can effectively space the floor and play competent defense has proven to be challenging. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 30 points on 13-for-17 shooting, nine rebounds and eight assists and Khris Middleton had 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting, but this was not nearly enough to prevent Boston from taking a 2-0 lead in the first-round series.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton were the Bucks' only hope in Game 1, too -- they combined for 66 points on 23-for-41 shooting -- but they didn't get much help. It has become clear that, as well as they have played, they cannot beat a cohesive, connected Celtics team by themselves.
The contrast here is too obvious to ignore. Here is Boston, the No. 2 seed succeeding without its top two playmakers (Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving) and two productive role players (Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis). Then there is Milwaukee, the seventh seed but blessed with near-perfect health and a genuine superstar. While the Celtics have overcome adversity all season, the Bucks have underachieved.
For a playoff team, the Bucks' bad vibes are unusual. They fired coach Jason Kidd in January to try to change things up, but all of the problems that existed then have persisted. On defense, they try to use their length and athleticism to force turnovers, but often surrender wide-open looks from high-percentage areas. On offense, they are hellbent on getting to the basket, but they don't balance their attack by shooting 3s with regularity or accuracy. Where Boston is unpredictable, Milwaukee is easy to scout.
The frustrating thing about the Bucks is that they consistently leave you feeling like they are leaving points on the table. They have the personnel to space the floor adequately, but they don't have a system that gets the most out of their role players. They have the option of using versatile, athletic lineups, but they rarely switch on defense regardless of who is on the court. They surrendered a first-round pick and a second-round pick to acquire Eric Bledsoe early in the season -- a clear win-now move -- and he is shooting 36 percent through two playoff games and didn't make his first 3 of the postseason until the third quarter on Tuesday.
Bledsoe has been outplayed by Terry Rozier -- -- but I am not even sure if you can call him Milwaukee's most disappointing player so far. Jabari Parker was a minus-14 in 15 minutes in Game 1, scoring two points on 1-for-5 shooting. He followed that up with 10 scoreless minutes in Game 2, in which the Bucks were outscored by 15 points. The Celtics have repeatedly targeted him on defense, and he has obviously not made them pay on the other end.
Malcolm Brogdon, last year's Rookie of the Year, didn't play in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Rookie Sterling Brown, who earned a role as a 3-and-D guy in the regular season, didn't play until the fourth quarter. Tony Snell has been invisible on offense through two games. One of the Bucks' biggest issues, as diagnosed by Prunty, is simply positioning themselves on the floor correctly so Boston can't easily cut off their passing lanes.
"There's possessions where we as a team will either dribble too much or not get our proper spacing and not move the ball as well as we need to," Prunty said.
This might explain why Prunty turned to guard Jason Terry, who is less than five months shy of his 41st birthday, for 18 minutes in Game 1 and five minutes in Game 2. It is also damning: After a full regular season, his players should understand where their shots are coming from.
This is not to say that Milwaukee's only -- or even main -- bugaboo is halfcourt offense. It actually managed to score 114.6 points per 100 possessions in Game 2. The Bucks failed to force turnovers, though, and, outside of a 13-0 run in the second quarter, never found a comfortable rhythm or took the Celtics out of theirs. Just like in the regular season, they have shown enough flashes to suggest that they could be more imposing defensively and could generate open looks more easily on offense, but they have done little to demonstrate that things are about to get better.
As much as any playoff series in recent years, this Milwaukee-Boston matchup illustrates the value of coaching, culture and a strong team identity. If you are the type of person who loves watching players move the ball, make each other better and communicate on defense, you're probably in love with Brad Stevens' Celtics, always more than the sum of their parts. You're also probably annoyed with the Bucks. While they have enough talent make things interesting when the series shifts to Milwaukee, they need some players other than Antetokounmpo and Middleton to dig them out of this hole.
"They've got a lot of guys playing well right now," Prunty said. "We've got a few."
In this case, Prunty understated it. "A few" would be an improvement.
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