For days leading up to Sunday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics prepared for a different challenge than the one they'd just completed. Unlike the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks are an enormous, physical, defense-first team. While injuries pressed Brooklyn into often playing three guards no taller than 6-foot-3, Milwaukee responded to Khris Middleton's injury by starting three bigs, none shorter than 6-10.
The Celtics had reason to be confident in their offense. Before dispatching of the undersized, overmatched Nets by scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions in four games, they had scored 118.5 per 100, the second-best mark in the league, over the last 43 games of the regular season, a span in which they went 33-10. Milwaukee has several high-level defenders, "but we feel we have favorable matchups as well on some of their guys," coach Ime Udoka said shortly before Game 1 tipped off.
And then Boston had its worst offensive game in more than six months, opening the series by scoring an ugly 89 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics' only performance more putrid this season was on Oct. 22 against the Toronto Raptors, a game in which they lost by 32 points and their home fans booed them.
It is one thing to understand intellectually that you're in for a tougher test every time you bring the ball up. It is another thing to get on the court and feel it.
"I think their physicality more so than anything caught us off guard," Udoka said after the 101-89 loss.
Udoka said that, in a way, it is "good to get this dud out of the way offensively -- to lose a 12-point game when we played that poorly offensively I think bodes well for us."
The Celtics' halfcourt defense was on point. They protected the paint, forced Milwaukee into midrange shots and held Giannis Antetokounmpo to 24 points on 9-for-25 shooting. They could not, however, find any rhythm when they had the ball, at least until a fourth-quarter stretch in which they created a bunch of open 3s on consecutive possessions, by which point it was far too late.
Sometimes, they simply missed good looks. Other times, they forced bad ones, both in the paint (where they shot 10-for-31) and from 3-point range (where they shot 18-for-50). What doomed Boston, though, was the stream of turnovers, many of which led to buckets for the Bucks.
In the second half, Holiday forced Smart into a turnover near halfcourt, leading to a Portis jumper; Holiday hit a pull-up 2 after Al Horford bobbled an entry pass; and Holiday hit another pull-up 3 after picking off a pass from Horford intended for Jayson Tatum:
These clips represent eight of Boston's 18 turnovers and 21 of Milwaukee's 27 points off turnovers. The Bucks, meanwhile, committed 14 turnovers, and the Celtics converted them into only six points. Related: Milwaukee had a 28-8 advantage in fast break points.
"That's on us," Brown said. "We've gotta be ready for their physicality. And they hit us in the mouth early and set the tone."
Udoka, Brown and Tatum all said that the Bucks "sped up" the Celtics, making it difficult to get into their sets and nudging them toward bad decisions. Brown said that Boston has to "be the smarter team" going forward, while Tatum said the team was "too careless" and needed to be more decisive.
"I don't feel we played with the best poise and composure overall," Udoka said.
After throwing away home-court advantage, the Celtics sounded confident that they will play more like themselves when they return to TD Garden on Tuesday. Milwaukee's size, length and commitment to protecting the rim make it difficult to score on the inside, but they know they can collapse the defense and create high-percentage looks as long as their spacing is sound and they make the right reads. Under duress, that is much more difficult than it sounds.
"It's not easy playing in the playoffs, and it takes focus, it takes execution," Horford said, adding that Boston had been doing just fine in these areas until Sunday. "It's just us having to tighten up and be better."
"All five on the glass, every time," Kerr told the players. "We keep the possession game even, you can see it -- we're getting wide-open looks down here."
Draymond Green had been ejected near the end of the first half, but Golden State had taken a lead with a mini-run. To maintain it, the Warriors would need to continue to hit the glass and avoid giving Memphis too many extra opportunities.
The Grizzlies had the NBA's second-best record in the regular season despite ranking 22nd in half-court offense, per Cleaning The Glass. They didn't do this merely by grinding out grimy wins; it built an elite offense out of second-chance points and the transition game. In Game 1 against Golden State, however, they did not gain their usual edges. Memphis attempted two more field goals than the Warriors, Golden State scored two more second-chance points and both teams scored the same amount of points off turnovers. All of this added up to a 117-116 win for the Warriors.
During his post-game interview on NBC Sports Bay Area, Kerr said, "One of the keys to this series is the possession game. We've gotta rebound, and we did that tonight. We outrebounded 'em 50-47. And we've gotta stay close on turnovers and hopefully win the turnover battle. In the regular season, they hammered us in the possession game." He noted that, in one of their regular-season meetings -- the Grizzlies' 116-108 win on Jan. 11 -- the Golden State attempted 18 fewer field goals than its opponent. "It's tough to beat a really good team that way."
The Warriors have always been deadly in transition, and this season they forced turnovers at an above-average rate. They were squarely average on the offensive glass, though, and even that is a significant achievement compared to how they fared in that category earlier in the Kerr era. In this particular matchup, though, they will crash the boards more aggressively, in order to minimize Memphis' advantages on the margins.
Stephen Curry and Poole both made 3s after Golden State recovered missed jumpers:
And the Warriors even grabbed an offensive board on a missed free throw, an extra possession that ended with Wiggins scoring two of their 56 points in the paint.
Grizzlies star Ja Morant began press conference by lamenting all the second-chance points they'd surrendered: Jaren Jackson Jr. said they simply had to "find a way to get to the ball," even when Golden State shoots deep 3s.
"Playing these guys, we understand that we gotta run more to the elbows to get the rebounds," Memphis' De'Anthony Melton said. "And box out first and hit them first because they do have guys that love to rebound and are trying to make those 50-50 plays every time down."
Kerr moved Looney to the bench in Game 5 of Golden State's first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, replacing the savvy center with the ascendant Poole. Payton took Poole's place in the starting lineup against the Grizzlies, and Looney played only six minutes before Green's ejection. Even when the Warriors are playing small, the coaching staff expects them to battle for the boards.
"It requires all of our guards to lock in and make sure they're boxing out and chasing after the rebound," Kerr said.
Golden State needed every extra chance it could get with one of its stars limited to 17 minutes, and Payton came up with four offensive boards, Poole and Wiggins three apiece. If the virtually equal possession game is a triumph for a Warriors team trying to follow Kerr's game plan, then so is the narrow win. Now Memphis is left to grapple with the way that it missed a massive opportunity.
"Can't allow them second chances or any open looks," Morant said. "And they pretty much made us pay for it."