The best NBA teams, the real contenders and the eventual champion who raises the Larry O’Brien, impose their will on the opposing teams. During the regular season, this may not be so noticeable. Eighty-two games can all be confused. In the playoffs, it’s more obvious. As Game 1 turns into Game 2 and then 3 and 4, a streak can feel like the car crusher in a junkyard, slowly reducing a team to a compact cube of shattered glass, crumpled metal and breaking points.
The Bucks have two-time Finals MVP and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Celtics’ calling card since their turnaround has been their defense. The two forces square off for Game 1 on Sunday (1 p.m. ABC), but come the end of the conference semifinals, it may be the more unpredictable nature of the three-point shot that will determine the series.
Milwaukee was an intermediate defensive team in 2021-22
Much has been said about Boston’s defense, but how effective was it against Brooklyn in their first-round sweep? The Nets finished with an offensive rating of 115.0, better than their 113.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. They shot 42.2% from behind the arc, but here’s the catch:
As teams are eliminated from the #NBAPlayoffs, we will analyze the differences in their shooting regimes from the regular season to the playoffs. For starters, we look at the Nets after a surprising sweep at the hands of the Celtics: pic.twitter.com/sxCBLXZlOD
— SIS Hoops (@SIS_Hoops) April 28, 2022
While Brooklyn shot 45.6% from midrange (3.4% better than the league average), the Celtics effectively pulled their shots into the restricted area and limited their attempts to three-pointers over the break. Much of Boston’s attention was obviously on Durant. By piling up and shoving KD, the Celtics’ physique was able to limit the Nets superstar, forcing nearly as many turnovers (21) as assists (25). Despite coming alive in the playoff game (39 points on 13 shooting for 31), Durant went just 38.4 percent from the field on just 20.8 field attempts per game.
It was a masterclass in blunting a superstar’s influence in a series. They will try a similar tactic against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the second round.
“Very different players, but there are similarities in the way they try to score,” Udoka said challenges defending Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Giannis is very different from Durant and Irving, but a lot of the things we did against Brooklyn will carry over into this series.”
Under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have finished top 5 on three-point attempts in three of the past four seasons and conversely have finished top-five in giving up three-point attempts in three of the past four seasons, also. Indeed, their offensive top 5 has turned NBA contests into carnival games to see who can make the most 3s.
To call Giannis the driving force behind the Bucks offense is an understatement. He finished third in the league in usage rate behind Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid and ranked third in player impact estimation. Our friends at Brew Hoop put it succinctly: “Boston is healthier, been hotter, has home-court advantage…but the Bucks have Giannis.”
However, as CelticsBlog’s Jack Simone points out, Boston is perfectly equipped to throw multiple bodies at Antetokounmpo, which would, for the most part, keep them at home on perimeter shooters and secondary creators:
The Celtics have several players who can stay with Antetokounmpo. Al Horford is the first guy that comes to mind, followed by players like Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Marcus Smart. Not all of them are the perfect match, but they are smart enough and perhaps more importantly big enough on the defensive end of the ball to at least give Antetokounmpo pause.
But even against the revolving door of defenders that Ime Udoka can throw at Antetokounmpo, he’s going to have his own. The question is whether the rest of the Bucks will or not. Budenholzer’s five-out system is meant to create space for the Greek Freak to swirl in the paint to create for himself or send him back to the perimeter and without Khris Middleton much of the shot creation of the Bucks for their role players will come from Giannis.
During the regular season, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in assists that resulted in three-point attempts at 10.0 per game. That rose slightly to 11.2 against the Bulls in the playoffs. Milwaukee has a scary trio of 40% three-point shooters: Pat Connaughton (39.5% on 5.7 3FGA), Grayson Allen (40.9% on 5.9 3FGA) and Bobby Portis (39.3% on 4.7 3FGA). Any of those guys could be the Bucks’ Bruce Brown in the second round.
The Celtics and Bucks have shared their four regular season meetings, but only the two games in December can really give us a good idea of what a seven-game series might look like. In November, the Celtics beat a Bucks team without Antetokounmpo thanks to 38 points from Dennis Schroeder. Last month, Milwaukee held off a 127-121 Boston crew without Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams. There were a few key personnel absences on December 13 and almost two weeks later on Christmas Day, but they could still be decent predictors, especially beyond the arc.
Milwaukee shot 36 and 33 three-pointers, Boston 47 and 45, and they split those December meetings. For the Bucks, that’s right around their regular-season averages of 38.4 attempts for themselves and giving up 40.6 to their opponents. As mentioned, they pack the paint to force teams to rest their fate on their outside shot. In the playoffs, the Bulls played right into that trap; Chicago made just 28.3 percent of its 36.8 three against the Bucks in their gentleman’s sweep.
Milwaukee got its share of three (36.8 3FGA per game) against a Bulls defense without two of its top perimeter defensemen, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso (for Game 5), available. Compared to Boston, it might be a lot harder to generate those catch-and-shoot opportunities. Against KD and Kyrie, the Celtics were stingy. Even though the Nets shot a ridiculous 42.2 percent from behind the arc, they only shot 27.3 threes per game. Boston was able to force Brooklyn to take more shots from mid-range in their four-game sweep.
On the other side of the ball, the Celtics didn’t exactly fire the net against the Nets. A 12 or 39 team performance in Game 3 – ironically and arguably Boston’s most convincing win in the series – dropped their three-point shooting percentage to 35.5% against Brooklyn, but it’s hard to say. negate their trend for the final four months of the season.
Celtics monthly three-point shooting trends
Part of that can be attributed to the effective trading of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson for Derrick White and Daniel Theis and creating turnover minutes for Payton Pritchard. Part of it is water finding its level. But there is also an element of trust that breeds trust; as they started shooting over threes, they started shooting over threes. That should bode well against a Bud team more than happy to let them.
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