NBA Playoffs: How one small Brad Stevens tweak produced big results in Celtics' Game 5 win over Bucks
When you play the Celtics, you're not just going against the guys in uniform
In a relatively evenly matched series such as Celtics-Bucks, coaching can be an effective tiebreaker. On Wednesday, Brad Stevens made a pretty simple adjustment to his starting lineup that went a long way in the Celtics prevailing -- narrowly -- with a 92-87 win in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead over Milwaukee.
He inserted Semi Ojeleye.
He sent Aron Baynes to the bench.
Again, it wasn't a sexy move. Casual fans might not even know who those two guys are. But here's what it did: It made the Celtics a much more like-sized defensive unit better equipped to switch on all of Milwaukee's perimeter length. It also put Ojeleye on Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Nobody is going to shut Antetokounmpo down, but Ojeleye, a brick of a man who also has the lateral quickness to cut off some of Giannis' driving angles, does have a history of relative success against the Greek Freak throughout the season. Fast forward to Wednesday night. Stevens tells Ojeleye 25 minutes before the game that he'll be starting for the first time all season. No pressure, young man. All you have to do is defend one of the most unstoppable basketball players on Earth in the biggest game of the season.
Olejeye accepts the challenge, defends Antetokounmpo for 40 possessions, and according to NBA.com, gives up just seven points on five shots in that time. Look at this following clip, a Giannis post-up, and look at the strength of Ojeleye's base. Good luck moving that mountain. With a wide stance, he squares his chest with Antetokounmpo, takes the contact, doesn't give any ground and Antetokounmpo ends up settling for a fadeaway jumper.
Here he does it again, cutting off Giannis' driving angle and forcing him forcing into a tough fadeaway.
Pay no mind to the fact that this shot went in. This is the exact shot Boston wants Antetokounmpo taking. He's an improving mid-range shooter, but still not a good one. If he makes a few, he makes a few, so be it. You stop Giannis from getting to the rim, you've done your job. Ojeleye did his job all night.
And even when it wasn't Ojeleye defending Giannis, Stevens' lineup move still paid dividends. As mentioned at the top, it made the Celtics much more switch capable, as you can see on this play, where three different defenders end up on Giannis and they can all reasonably match up with him. Part of this is on Giannis for settling, but the Celtics forced him to second-guess his attack with three like-sized defenders -- first Ojeleye, then Jaylen Brown, and finally Al Horford -- with Horford giving him enough cushion on the end to bait him into another example of the exact shot they want him to take.
That is the definition of defensive execution, simple but effective, everyone on a string, collectively tethered to the game plan laid out by Stevens, who knew the Celtics needed to get back to their defensive principles. Coming into Game 5, Boston was operating as the second-worst defensive team in the playoffs, giving up more than 113 points per 100 possessions to the Bucks. That's way too much. Addressing the Giannis matchup, and Milwaukee's length and athleticism in general, was the first part of fixing that. But there was another benefit to inserting Ojeleye.
You often hear that offense can be a team's best defense, and indeed, putting Ojeleye in the starting lineup moved Horford to the center spot on the offensive end. What did that do? With Horford being a threat from three, Milwaukee's bigs, which racked up 27 blocks in Games 3 and 4, were pulled away from the rim, and in part due to this, the Bucks only tallied three blocks in Game 5.
Those blocks fuel the Bucks' transition offense, where they're most dangerous. Get all that length in the open floor operating in early offense, they're tough to handle. Turn into a half-court game of execution, and the Celtics have a clear edge. Add it all up, and the Bucks only put 87 points on the board, a number that is right in Boston's sweet spot.
So, yes, coaching matters. Boston threw a little wrinkle at Milwaukee, forcing the Bucks to change their attack on the fly, and they weren't able to do it. Yes, Giannis has to be more aggressive. The best player on the floor can't take 10 shots for an entire game. But Joe Prunty better step his game up in Game 6, too. Stevens threw a wrinkle at his coaching counterpart, and Prunty had no idea how to respond. The Bucks just kept playing the way they play, and it played right into everything Boston set out to do.
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